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Quality Time Seems Stacked In Favor of Firstborns

Lopsided Time Log Favors Firstborns

"The first one has the most profound impact on the parents because you don't have a clue what you're doing," said Dia Michels, 49, a D.C. mother of three, who recalled that her eldest daughter's gymnastics classes once set the schedule for the whole family. Younger siblings went along for the ride, and dinners were rearranged.

In Manassas, Kristen Kiefer, 34, a mother of two, said she recognizes that her firstborn, Madeline, 5, "is driving the bus right now about where we're going and when," with soccer, play dates and birthday parties. Still, Kiefer said, she is deliberate about making time for her 20-month-old son, Aidan.

Recently, this came up as Kiefer planned a trip for the family. Her son adores Elmo, but her daughter says she has outgrown the furry red Sesame Street character. "I decided that, like it or not, we're taking the baby to Sesame Place while he still enjoys it," Kiefer said.

Sometimes, she said, she wonders whether her secondborn gets short shrift. "I go to bed at night thinking, 'I didn't do enough of this for this kid or enough of that for that kid.' " In the end, she said, "the reality is, with two working parents and two kids . . . you just never feel like there's enough time."

In Bowie, Damon Kyler, 42, a father of three, noted that the time gap might happen in part because younger children in the family often seek out their older siblings, not their parents. But 3,000 more hours to the firstborn?

"It did surprise me that it was so drastic," he said.

During his research, Price said, he discovered the firstborn time gap almost by accident, as he was poring over data on parent-child time, focused on a different topic. "The results were completely surprising and caused a lot of reflection for me as a parent," he said.

In two-child families, firstborn children got about 30 percent more quality time from their parents. Birth-order differences were largest in activities Price considered most important, such as reading and playing together. Secondborns prevailed in one category: watching television with parents. Price did not count this as quality time.

Why parents spend less time with children as a family ages was not studied, but Price offered some reasons, including fatigue, age and a waning novelty. In his family, he recalled, the firstborn had an elaborate scrapbook right away, but the scrapbook for his fourth child, 14 months old, has not been started.

Price also pointed out that parents are more involved in driving their children to activities as the firstborn gets older, and driving was not counted as quality time.

How much the eldest benefits from being a family's first might not be as certain as experts assume, said Sally MacKenzie, 53, a Rockville mother of four sons who sent her youngest to college in the fall. MacKenzie recalled the words of a relative, who once told her: "Firstborns are the ones you practice on, and it shows." As a group, she said, firstborns might be more successful by some measures, but "I don't know if that means they're happier or more neurotic."

Lauren Alexander, 38, a mother of two in Cheverly, also noted fairness is not always measured by the numbers. "You can have fair treatment across all of your children, and it may not come in the form of equal time," she said, comparing it to husbands and wives who might not share each chore equally, "but in the end, it's probably fair."

Despite the time gap, later-born children have advantages, too, Price said. On average, they are raised when families have higher incomes and larger homes; more attend private schools. "The secondborn gets to experience a better life in terms of money, but the firstborn gets more time," Price said.

In Oak Hill, Haggerty-Lacalle said that her family is dedicated to reading time before bed and that her husband, Joaquin, takes the older two children on hikes every weekend.

Lately, she has tried to involve her youngest, 2, as she does household must-dos, such as laundry. It might not be the kind of attention she once gave her firstborn, but her youngest enjoys the task.

"It's not just quality time," Haggerty-Lacalle said. "It's quantity."


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