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Strategic parenting, birth order, and school performance

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Fueled by new evidence, there has been renewed interest about the effects of birth order on human capital accumulation. The underlying causal mechanisms for such effects remain unsettled. We consider a model in which parents impose more stringent disciplinary environments in response to their earlier-born children’s poor performance in school in order to deter such outcomes for their later-born offspring. We provide robust empirical evidence that school performance of children in the National Longitudinal Study Children (NLSY-C) declines with birth order as does the stringency of their parents’ disciplinary restrictions. When asked how they will respond if a child brought home bad grades, parents state that they would be less likely to punish their later-born children. Taken together, these patterns are consistent with a reputation model of strategic parenting.

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  1. See Lindert (1977) for a related approach exploiting time use data.

  2. See also Kanazawa (2012).

  3. See Ginther and Pollak (2004) for an analysis of the relation between family structure and education outcomes. To examine this hypothesis, Black et al. (2005) re-estimate their model in a sample of families that experience no family disruptions. They still find sizable and statistically significant birth order effects.

  4. Here, we rely on results from Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner (2008) that emphasize the importance of study effort in determining school performance.

  5. We limited the analysis to children aged 10–14 for two reasons. First, we think that late childhood and early adolescence provide the relevant age window for our study. This is a critical time in which children are old enough to behave as independent economic agents but still young enough so that parents can exert some influence through their parenting strategies. Second, and most importantly, we face data limitations to consider alternative age ranges. The children of the NLSY are interviewed only up to age 14. Starting in 1994, these children of NLSY mothers transition into the Young Adult (YA) study when they reach age 15 and are interviewed using a completely different survey instrument. As a result, most of the questions are not carried over from the Children study into the YA study. This explains why our window of analysis has to end at age 14. We decided to begin our analyses of these children as of age 10 since it is only after that age that all of the variables we use are available.

  6. To assess whether the birth order differences are statistically significant, we test the null of no birth order effects in these three subsamples of children with different family sizes. We cannot reject the null in two-child families, but we do reject it in 3-child families (p value =0.04) and 4-child families (p value =0.06).

  7. More recently, Pavan (2013) and Lehmann et al. (2013) document similar birth order patterns in test scores.

  8. For some children, at least one of the PIAT and/or PPVT tests scores is missing. In results where we control for these test scores, we only use child-year observations for children with non-missing test scores. As a result, the number of child-year observations in Table 5 and subsequent tables are somewhat smaller than those in Table 3. To assess the consequences of using the latter subsamples, we reproduced the results in panel B of Table 3. Those results are presented in online Supplementary Appendix Table A10 . The two sets of results are fairly similar. To assess the robustness of the empirical findings presented in the remainder of the paper, we also estimated versions of the regression specifications presented in Tables 6 through 10, where we continued to restrict the subsamples to children that are not missing test scores, but where we do not include test scores in any of the regressions; the latter results are found in online Supplementary Appendix Tables A11 through A15, respectively. While whether or not one controls for children’s test scores does change the actual estimates displayed in Tables 6 through 10, the inferences drawn from them are not materially affected.

  9. Since test scores are taken at various ages, we re-estimated the same specifications but only using maternal reports about the child’s school performance elicited after the child has completed the cognitive ability assessments. These results are presented in online Supplementary Appendix Table A1. All the results are very similar.

  10. See, for example, McLanahan and Sandefur (1994); Ermisch and Francesconi (2001), Ginther and Pollak (2004); Tartari (2014) and Finlay and Neumark (2010).

  11. Throughout this section, we focus on the linear specification. We report the corresponding non-linear analysis in online Supplementary Appendix Tables A2 through A5 . We also report the same parenting style results in the subsample of intact families in online Supplementary Appendix Tables A6 through A9, but due to its small sample size, the coefficients tend to be imprecisely estimated.

  12. There seem to be more within-family variation in these measures of parenting than one would expect a priori. In particular, 88 % of the families used in the analysis of parental rules about TV watching contribute multiple observations to our estimation sample. Approximately 70 % of those families have within-family variation.

  13. The actual question is “How often do your parents check on whether you have done your homework?” Allowed answers include: never, less than once a month, 1–2 times a month, 1–2 times a week, almost every day, every day.

  14. Again, the family-fixed effects specification is identified off within-family variation, across siblings, and over time in the parenting rule. Some 67 % of the families contributing multiple observations have within-family variation in monitoring intensity.

  15. The dependent variables in Tables 8 and 7 are self-reports elicited from the child. One concern could be that measurement error in child-reported variables change by sibling order to the extent that reports are elicited at different ages. In an attempt to mitigate the potential concern, we control for a child’s age at the time these reports were elicited in all of our specifications.

  16. B i h t =1 if the child i of household h is thought to be either below the middle of the class or at the bottom of the class at time t.

  17. The within-family variation that identifies the fixed effect specification comes from two sources. First, the same mother provides multiple reports about her children over time and these reports may change over time, even if they are the same for all her children at a given point in time. Second, even at a given point in time, a mother might report differently for each of her age-eligible children. While this does not always happen, it does occur for a non-negligible percentage of families, so there is some variation across children within a family, within a year. The birth order effects in the family-fixed effects specification in Table 10 are identified by 2262 families who provide multiple child-year observations. Among these, 337 contribute (multiple) reports about only one of their children over time. The remaining 1925 contribute reports about multiple children and thus have the potential for multiple reports within a year in which at least two of the children are in our age range (10–14). Indeed, 1197 of these families have at least 1 year with two or more children in our range. Perhaps, surprisingly, (248/1197=) 21 % of these families have at least 1 year in which they provide different reports about each child.


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We wish to thank Dan Ackerberg; Sandy Black; Leah Boustan; Moshe Buchinsky; Dora Costa; Harold Demsetz; Paul Devereux; Donna Ginther; Bart Hamilton; Guillermo Ordonez; Bob Pollak; John Riley; Joe Rodgers; Kjell Salvanes; Judith Seltzer; Bruce Weinberg; seminar participants at UCLA, Washington University in St. Louis, Duke University, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, OECD, and Clemson University; comments from discussants at the 2008 PAA meetings and 2008 SOLE meetings; and from respondents to the Colin Clark Lecture delivered by one of us (Hotz) at the 2011 Econometric Society Australasian Meeting. We also thank two anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions. All errors remain ours.

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Correspondence to V. Joseph Hotz.

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Responsible editor: Junsen Zhang

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Hotz, V.J., Pantano, J. Strategic parenting, birth order, and school performance. J Popul Econ 28, 911–936 (2015).

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