Birth Order Can Affect Underachievement

By Sylvia Rimm

January 22, 2014 4 min read

Q: Is underachievement connected to birth order? It seems to me that if there's a high achiever in the family, another sibling becomes an underachiever. What's your experience with sibling effects? How is underachievement affected by a person's generation? Does the work ethic of our grandparents' era affect underachievers, and is there a way to parent that will prevent underachievement?

A: Birth order definitely affects underachievement. Although there are many families where children achieve, there are also quite a few where one sibling achieves, and a second or third underachieves. Sometimes, parents compare siblings to each other, but whether they do or not, siblings compare themselves to each other. Research shows that older siblings tend to be higher achievers than those born later, but sometimes the opposite is true with a second or third child dethroning the older siblings, causing them to lose confidence and underachieve. Children who are close in age tend to be more competitive with each other, but one can't always generalize about age differences. The competition that siblings feel can cause children to assume they can't do as well as the others so they give up trying, and either don't feel as smart or assume that not trying can give them excuses for doing poorly. Thus, they prefer to assume they're smart but lazy, rather than make an effort, perhaps not accomplishing high goals and thus feeling "dumb."

As to your generation comparison question, a work ethic makes a very big difference in achievement. There have always been underachievers, but there are definitely more of them in this generation than in the past. Technology, television and video games encourage children to expect learning to be fast-moving and magical, and they are more likely to become frustrated with the steady engagement and concentration in schoolwork that is required for children to become good students. Parenting has always, and will always, make a difference, but siblings, peers and teachers also contribute to children's motivations to achieve. Although environments aren't always entirely predictions of whether children achieve or underachieve, there is definitely scientific evidence for the underlying causes of underachievement. In other words, there is a science to good parenting, quality teaching and peer pressure efforts.

There are many high achievers in our schools today; it is more competitive than ever for students who wish to enter universities. But despite the fact there are so many high achievers, an epidemic of underachievement also exists.

For further information, you can read my books "Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It" (Great Potential Press, 2008) and/or "How to Parent So Children Will Learn" (Great Potential Press, 2008).

For free newsletters about sibling competition and/or learning disabilities, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the address below. Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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