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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 21, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 31
Not Your Imagination: Study Suggests Parents Stricter With Older Kids

By Lisa De Nike

If you think your parents let your younger siblings get away with a lot, you're probably right. A new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere concludes that parents do punish older children more harshly — and what's more, that they are wise to do so.

Published in the April issue of Economic Journal, the study — titled "Games Parents and Adolescents Play" — finds evidence that parents are more likely to withdraw financial support from older siblings who either drop out of high school — or in the case of girls, become pregnant — than from their younger brothers and sisters who find themselves in the same situations.

Furthermore, the paper presents evidence that more severe discipline of older children is smart because it actually deters younger siblings from engaging in the activities that caused their older brothers and sisters to be punished in the first place.

"Parents often worry about how forceful of a stand to take in response to their older children's behavior," said study co-author Lingxin Hao, a professor of sociology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the youngest of three sisters, as well as the mother of a daughter. "Our study finds that some parents are successfully using this strategy of influencing their younger children by stopping their older children's risky behavior."

The study is co-authored by V. Joseph Hotz, an economics professor at Duke University, and Ginger Z. Jin, an assistant economics professor at University of Maryland. It was supported by a grant from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

"My older sister always complains that she never got away with anything when she was growing up, and we all agree that my youngest sister got away with murder," said Hotz, who was the middle child of five siblings and is now the parent of two grown children. "That's the story of this study."

The researchers began by constructing a model of parent-teenager interactions using the logic and mathematical tools provided by game theory. The model assumes that parents want their adolescent children to avoid long-term negative consequences that can result from risky behaviors such as drinking, drug use, sexual activity and dropping out of school. Teenagers, on the other hand, are assumed to value the short-term thrills of risk-taking behavior while also wanting to avoid punishment.

In the model, the authors posit that parents need to establish a reputation among their children for following through on threatened punishments. Parents also need to recognize that this reputation can become diluted if parents do not punish their children after threatening that they will.

According to the authors' theory, parents have an incentive to punish their first-born child if that child engages in risky behaviors in order to discourage such behavior by younger siblings. This usually works with first-born children, who recognize that their parents are likely to be tougher on their transgressions and, as a result, are deterred in their rebellions. However, this deterrence motive for parents seems to wane as their younger children reach adolescence and parents lose the energy and motivation to follow through with their threatened punishments.

"Tender-hearted parents find it harder and harder to engage in 'tough love' since, as they have fewer young children in the house, they have less incentive to uphold reputations as disciplinarians," said Jin, herself an older sister and a parent of two. "As a result, the theory predicts that last-born, and only, children, knowing that they can get away with much more than their older brothers and sisters, are, on average, more likely to engage in risky behaviors."

To test their model, the researchers looked for evidence of differential treatment of adolescent risk-taking by birth order in survey data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They found two measures of adolescent rebellion and two measures of parental punishment. Dropping out of high school and becoming pregnant were interpreted as rebellion; not allowing a teenager to live in the family house and not financially supporting a teenager were interpreted as punishment. (Providing financial support was defined as parents paying half or more of a child's living expenses.)

The results of the researchers' analysis of the NLSY data were consistent with their model. The analysis revealed that first-born children who dropped out of high school or became pregnant were less likely to be living at home or receiving financial support from parents than younger siblings in the same situations. Moreover, as predicted, younger siblings were more likely to engage in these behaviors, especially dropping out of school, than their older siblings.

The study is available online at


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