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Are first-born children more intelligent? Behind the viral headlines

Despite the snappy headlines, it's not so simple.

how birth order affects intelligence

Parenting multiple children of different ages isn't easy. Your firstborn is going to have different strengths and challenges than your youngest or your middle child—and not just because they are older, but because they are the oldest.

Recently, a 2016 study resurfaced online and went viral. It suggests that first-borns are more intelligent than their younger siblings—but despite the snappy headlines, it's not so simple.

That study, published in The Journal of Human Resources, suggests there is a cognitive gap related to birth order, as younger kids score lower on assessments than their older siblings as early as 12 months old.

The researchers believe that "broad shifts in parental behavior from first to later-born children is a plausible explanation for the observed birth order differences in education and labor market outcomes."

In layman's terms: Parents are often more mindful about pursuing enriching activities the first time around, and we tend to relax as parents (and get busier) by the time our second child is in the picture.

Our younger children will have different early experiences than a first-born but don't feel guilty, mama. There are so many things you can do to boost their brainpower.

Here are a few things to try:

1. Foster a secure attachment

According to the study published in Psychological Science, children who have solid attachments to their primary caregiver at a young age develop better self-control, which leads to better performance in school a decade later.

This doesn't mean you have to wear your baby or co-sleep (unless you want to) it just means you have to try to respond to a distressed child in sensitive, loving and reassuring ways, instead of ignoring or minimizing their problem (which is easy to default to when we're busy).

If we're mindful about responding to our younger kids problems by being present and supportive instead of dismissive, they're more likely to do better academically.

2. Read, read and read some more

There is an overwhelming body of research suggesting that kids who are read to regularly are set up for success. And if you've already got one older kiddo, you're probably already reading a lot. A recent study found kids who are read to five times a day hear more than 1.4 million more words before kindergarten than those who aren't read to, so bring the baby along the next time you're taking the toddler to the library. And if your oldest is old enough, enlist them in reading some stories to the younger ones.

3. Sing to your little ones

This is another one your older child can totally help with. Studies show that singing to infants is comforting (to both the baby and us) and benefit an infant's cognitive development. Plus, when we're singing to our babies we're not only stimulating their brains with sound waves, we're directing attention at them, which builds a solid attachment and counts as a one-to-one interaction (even if an older sibling is helping us with the song).

4. Sign them up for music lessons

By the time you're a mama of two or three or four, your time is stretched a lot further than it was when you only had one child. So enrolling a younger child in music lessons gives mama a bit of a break and gives them a "thing" of their own.

Plus, research suggests as little as two years of music lessons can boost a child's brain power in areas responsible for decision-making. It gives them more focus and some extra impulse control, which gives them a boost academically.

There are so many things that we as parents can do to close the birth order cognitive gap, but we also have to understand that it's really not holding younger kids back.

While middle children may score as well on a cognitive assessment as a first-born at a year old, studies of middle children have shown that they are actually more likely than their siblings to be successful as adults, and youngest kids are more likely to take risks in their careers and become millionaires.

Bottom line: Despite the alarming viral headlines, your younger kids are capable of being every bit as smart and successful as your first-born, their intelligence might just manifest itself a little differently and a little later in life.

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This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But, a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4 year old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year...

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keeping an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Following children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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In Montessori schools, parents are periodically invited to observe their children at work in the classroom. I have heard many parents express shock to see their 3- or 4-year-old putting away their own work when they finish—without even being asked!

"You should see his room at home!" or, "I ask him to put his toys away every day, and it's a battle every single time" were frequent comments.

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