Language, IQ and firstborns

For the past couple of decades, I’ve come in and out of contact with articles saying that firstborn children tend to have better verbal skills, on average, than their younger siblings. This, of course, gelled with my own experience as a preternaturally linguistic firstborn child — my mother recorded my early verbal expressions faithfully, reporting that I had managed to come up with an eleven-word sentence at something like 18 months. Or maybe 20. Frankly, I do not remember.

Recently, I’ve been watching my niece, who will be 19 months old on Friday. She is the first, and for a couple of weeks more, only, child. I’ve been watching how she will bring her books, one by one, to her Daddy on his days off (or her Mama any other day), and sit by him while he asks her to point to the ball or the pig or the hat. She likes these games, and seems to understand that they are symbols of objects in the real world. She repeats the words. She knows how genitive case works: she picks up the checkbook when we are alone in the house and says “Daddy’s.” She finds my mother’s green throw blanket and tells me: “Mimi’s.” She knows how to make sentences using “it’s” both in the abstract and the concrete. “Oh! It’s cold,” she will say when we step outside and the chill of winter hits us. “It’s Samah,” she will say, pointing to my brother Samuel as he comes in.

When we explore the kitchen, she knows which cups are for “water” and which cups are for “coffee.” She likes to smell the coffee in the morning, and dip her finger in for a taste. Her world consists primarily of adults who give her their undivided intellectual attention, or at least a running commentary on what things are and how they work. She seems to have a head start on language comprehension, which may continue even after the new baby arrives.

Seeing all of this, I wanted to research again the correlation between firstborn children and verbal skills. What I found was that, on average, firstborns have higher IQs than their younger siblings. Not by a huge amount… a whole 3% more than the second-born, and 4% more than the third-born… but the edge seems to come from the way they are raised. Firstborns also have a tendency to excel academically and find positions in management, which may have less to do with their actual intelligence than it does with their attitude about their place in the world. My sister, who is almost two and a half years younger than me, was physically almost as big as I was for a large portion of our childhood (she eventually became bigger) and she was fearless in ways that I was not. Samuel, over five years younger than me, was so aggressive that he would tackle anything in his path, including me, just for the fun of it. When he was about three, he permanently damaged his upper lip because he was chasing me around the back yard, and I sprang up on the deck to evade him, which he mistakenly believed he could do as well.

They could be little hellions, both of them, and they often banded together to challenge me. So I had to outsmart them. I had to impress upon them (however disingenuously) that I was vastly superior, and that no amount of trying would ever result in my downfall. However, I had to do this in a way that would not be suspect, such as writing plays for us all and making them take the less interesting roles. I had to think defensively, and I got good at climbing trees at rapid speed to avoid being sprayed with the garden hose. I also got really good at being boring; reading and rolling my eyes at them until they left me alone. By the time Daniel and Isaiah came along, I was old enough to mother them, teach them how to read and write fiction, and give them all advice on fashion (white tennis shoes look like toilets on your feet and no, that a bent staple around your ear does not pass for an earring), whether they paid attention or not.

I left home shortly after turning 18, and stepped into the world of non-homeschooling, where my classmates were my own age and older. I expected things to be challenging because of this, but overall, my upbringing blended pretty well into the next phases of life. In my eight years of undergrad and grad school, I got one B. Otherwise, it was fifteen semesters of 4.0s. Not because I was a genius, but because I had trained myself to be patient, to be studious, to be creative, and to be nimble. And also, probably, because I expected to do pretty well in spite of the fact that I had decent competition. Since then, I have been relatively lucky in my professional life. Perhaps nothing, though, set me on these paths so much as the fact that I was born first, into the family I was born into. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate.

3 thoughts on “Language, IQ and firstborns

  1. I went to four schools total to get my grad and undergrad(s), but I have wondered if I had gone to e.g. an Ivy-League school what my GPA would have been. I doubt it would have been a 4.0.

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