Home
What is the single most important, optional thing that parents can do to ensure the happiness and success of a child?

For today's topic, I'm assuming that taking care of a child's health is mandatory, not optional. And the law says you have to send your kid to school, or home school. So education isn't optional either.

Your mind is probably sorting through a number of parenting styles right now. You're thinking about how much time the mother spends with a child. You're thinking about the type of discipline a parent uses. You're thinking about role modeling, and how much focus is put on schoolwork. You might think nutrition, love, hugging, and a dozen other factors are important, and you'd be right. But what is the one factor that is bigger than them all?

My hypothesis is that the month you conceive is the most important factor in a child's success. And no, I don't mean horoscopes are important. What matters most is how old a kid is for the class he is placed in. Macolm Gladwell described in his book Outliers how the older kids in a class are identified as gifted athletes, when in fact they are simply older. Coaches give more attention, training and resources to develop the perceived talents of older kids, thus widening the gap over their younger classmates.

When I first heard about the birth month advantage, I assumed it didn't matter much for ordinary kids who had no plans to be professional athletes. But consider any kids you know, and how much they change, mentally, emotionally, and physically in the course of one year. The youngest kids in a given class are at a huge intellectual disadvantage compared to the oldest. How different is the experience of a kid that breezes through school thinking he's brilliant, versus the kid who needs a tutor to keep up?

We know that some childhood advantages disappear over time. A recent study showed that raw intelligence was a better predictor of long term income than a child's socioeconomic starting point. Likewise, maybe the younger kids with talent learn to try harder, and to cope with failure, which has its own advantages later in life.

Let's test the hypothesis, albeit unscientifically, that birth month advantages are lasting. If you have siblings, and one of you was young for your class, and the other was old, which one of you is more successful as an adult?

 

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +35
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:

Comments

Sort By:
Mar 15, 2012
Maybe on an incredibly macro scale, but I was a year young in my school, and I graduated salutatorian and went to CMU (enjoyed your earlier comic about that, btw)...so, I disagree :P

My counterpoint would be that younger minds tend to learn faster, so if your child gets into school earlier, they could potentially pick things up faster...which seems like just as big an advantage. Hard to tell, though, without doing a huge research study
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 14, 2012
Unstructured play time is first; letting the child choose and read as many books as he or she wants is second.

I was one of the youngest kids in my classes, but I was unusually bright; I tended to catch on so quickly that I was usually bored anyway. My sister was one of the oldest kids in her classes, and she always did fine, too.

You're not planning to have kids yourself at this late stage, are you [wink, wink]?
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 13, 2012
It doesn't matter what month one is born...what matters is inner desire.

My sister was the oldest. She received all of the priviledges, etc. My brother was the youngest. He was the baby and received all of the attention. I was in the middle. Or, as I like to say, "I got whatever was left over."

My sister had a very outgoing personality. She was the life of the party. And, boy, did she party. She snuck out of the house, disappeared for days on end, and pretty much cut half of each school year going out to parties. My brother played sports -- baseball and golf. He was quite good at it, and had a scholarship from a college to go play ball. Unfortunately, he got injured his senior year of high school, and couldn't play. He, too, pretty much cut half of his school year to work on baseball and golf. My parents wrote this behavior in both. For my sister, it was a "stage". For my brother, it was "cute".

I was neither the life of the party, or good in sports. I spent my time reading. When I wasn't reading, I was riding bikes. I left home at age 17 -- tired of the double standard, and being held to a higher standard than was expected of the other two. Perhaps it was for the best. I served 10 years in the Military. I was the first to graduate from college. I have 3 degrees now, and am preparing to chase a 4th. I have been all over the world traveling and working. (My brother is almost 45, and still lives at home with my mother. My sister is married, and, finally, settled down.)

I have 2 kids. They are their own persons. I don't hold them to some obscene standard. I do enforce two rules: 1) Respect their Mother, and 2) No abuse toward each other. A lifetime's worth of learning awaits them. As long as they respect their mother, and don't kill each other -- or anyone else -- I've done my job.

I won't be driving my kids to soccer practice. I won't dress them in a suit and tie and send them to a snooty private school with spoiled silver spooners named "Buffy", and "Parker", and "Mitsy". I want mine to get bumps and bruises. To play in the dirt. To learn that everyone is not a winner.

And, to learn that, yes, sometimes, life sucks. It isn't fair.

 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 9, 2012
As it turns out, there is a lot of research on this subject - though it is not portrayed well by Malcolm Gladwell. My fellow neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt and I wrote about academic redshirting for the New York Times last year. It can be found using the web search "redshirting."

As we wrote then, "academic redshirting" - the practice of purposely holding a child back from entering kindergarten - is done for 1 in 11 children. There is a belief that this somehow gives kids an advantage. Thanks to Gladwell, the belief that parents do their children a favor by redshirting seems especially prevalent among business types.

However, as Sandra and I pointed out, this is exactly backwards. After reviewing the evidence in depth, we found that the scientific research argues in the other direction: the advantage goes to children who are *young* for their year.

It is ironic that Gladwell's original point has been taken up by ambitious parents who think they are doing their child a favor. The research evidence doesn't even hold for all sports; for example, it isn't true for women's sports, noncontact sports, or even some contact sports. In short, if you are trying to raise the next Wayne Gretzky, sure, hold your boy back. But if you want your child to achieve academically, become better-adjusted, and avoid delinquency - all signs point toward letting him or her advance.

Sam Wang
Author, Welcome To Your Child's Brain
Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology, Princeton University
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 8, 2012
As it turns out, Mr. Adams's essay has it exactly backwards. The evidence quoted by other commenters is also interpreted incorrectly. My fellow neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt and I wrote about academic redshirting for the New York Times last year. It can be found using the web search "redshirting."

As we wrote then, "academic redshirting" - the practice of purposely holding a child back from entering kindergarten - is done for 1 in 11 children. There is a belief that this somehow gives kids an advantage. Thanks to Gladwell, the belief that parents do their children a favor by redshirting seems especially prevalent among business types.

However, as Sandra and I pointed out, this is exactly backwards. After reviewing the evidence in depth, we found that the scientific research argues in the other direction: the advantage goes to children who are *young* for their year.

It is ironic that Gladwell's original point has been taken up by ambitious parents who think they are doing their child a favor. The research evidence doesn't even hold for all sports; for example, it isn't true for women's sports, noncontact sports, or even some contact sports. In short, if you are trying to raise the next Wayne Gretzky, sure, hold your boy back. But if you want your child to achieve academically, become better-adjusted, and avoid delinquency - all signs point toward letting him or her advance.

To read more about this topic, readers are welcome to visit the website for my book, Welcome To Your Brain.

Sam Wang
Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology
Princeton University
 
 
Mar 6, 2012
As it turns out, Mr. Adams's essay has it exactly backwards. The evidence quoted by other commenters is also interpreted incorrectly. My fellow neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt and I wrote about academic redshirting for the New York Times last year: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/dont-delay-your-kindergartners-start.html

As we wrote then, "academic redshirting" - the practice of purposely holding a child back from entering kindergarten - is done for 1 in 11 children. There is a belief that this somehow gives kids an advantage. Thanks to Gladwell, the belief that parents do their children a favor by redshirting seems especially prevalent among business types.

However, as Sandra and I pointed out, this is exactly backwards. After reviewing the evidence in depth, we found that the scientific research argues in the other direction: the advantage goes to children who are *young* for their year.

It is ironic that Gladwell's original point has been taken up by ambitious parents who think they are doing their child a favor. The research evidence doesn't even hold for all sports; for example, it isn't true for women's sports, noncontact sports, or even some contact sports. In short, if you are trying to raise the next Wayne Gretzky, sure, hold your boy back. But if you want your child to achieve academically, become better-adjusted, and avoid delinquency - all signs point toward letting him or her advance.

To read more about this topic, readers are welcome to visit my website, welcometoyourbrain.com.

Sam Wang
Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology
Princeton University
 
 
Mar 6, 2012
s it turns out, Mr. Adams's essay has it exactly backwards. The evidence quoted by other commenters is also interpreted incorrectly. My fellow neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt and I wrote about academic redshirting for the New York Times last year: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/dont-delay-your-kindergartners-start.html

As we wrote then, "academic redshirting" - the practice of purposely holding a child back from entering kindergarten - is done for 1 in 11 children. There is a belief that this somehow gives kids an advantage. Thanks to Gladwell, the belief that parents do their children a favor by redshirting seems especially prevalent among business types.

However, as Sandra and I pointed out, this is exactly backwards. After reviewing the evidence in depth, we found that the scientific research argues in the other direction: the advantage goes to children who are *young* for their year.

It is ironic that Gladwell's original point has been taken up by ambitious parents who think they are doing their child a favor. The research evidence doesn't even hold for all sports; for example, it isn't true for women's sports, noncontact sports, or even some contact sports. In short, if you are trying to raise the next Wayne Gretzky, sure, hold your boy back. But if you want your child to achieve academically, become better-adjusted, and avoid delinquency - all signs point toward letting him or her advance.

To read more about this topic, readers are welcome to look at the scientific evidence, which is all linked at welcometoyourbrain.com.

Sam Wang
Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology
Princeton University
 
 
Mar 6, 2012
I'm going to get downvoted but I say the bes non-optional thing I've done for my kids is that they don't watch TV or nintendo. None. We have no cable or rabbit ears. Guess what? They like each other and are able to play and love to read.
 
 
Mar 6, 2012
Interesting subject matter, of which I am no means an expert and can only offer my own experience:

I was born in November, and was reading by age 3. Mom thought I was advancing too quickly to keep at home, so she fudged my birth certificate (district rules said the child had to be 5 by start of school year) and put me in school. For years I was the youngest in my classes, which also meant I was the typically the smallest (no star athelete, was I). My younger brother was born in August, so he started on time with his peers-and he was usually average size along with his classmates. Now, fast forward 40 years later for me-I have two college degrees, retired after 21 years Army, now work for a different govt agency, have investments and am married to a woman with 3 college degrees (most importantly, I am happy with my life. Success?) My brother dropped out of high school, has a minor criminal record, a history of drug use and struggles to pay bills. He married a nice woman and has a terrific young daughter, so his good luck must be ruled out of this experiment. I would lend credence to the study Mr. Adams mentions-IQ definitely was a factor in our family's story, as both my brother and I were tested in school, with my results being well above average, and my brother's average.

The difficult part for me now is my children, twins born in December. We have a decision to make that could possibly affect their entire lives. I hope they both test out smart!
 
 
Mar 6, 2012
Research I saw today shows that in BC (Canada) children born late in the year have a 25% greater chance of being diagnosed with ADHD.

Being diagnosed is something like that can really impact on your health (pumped with pills), life, foundation for education and self-esteem, when the real problem is that the child is less emotionally mature in comparison to the class average.

I was more than a year younger than my classmates (my mother was the school secretary and because I could already read and count they let me go into grade 1 when I was 5.) I think as a girl you don't have many of the issues that boys have with bullying etc. but I was a little short so I kept to sports like swimming and tennis where size wasn't important and never did well.

Near the end of school my friends were all going to parties and were interested in boys long before me so I was a little left out, but then I ended up doing better academically without the distractions. By the time I was permitted to wear make-up and date, I had seen all my friends go through traumatic relationships, and I could avoid some of the traps.

You make the best of what you're given.
 
 
Mar 4, 2012
As it turns out, Mr. Adams's essay has it exactly backwards. The evidence quoted by other commenters is also interpreted incorrectly. My fellow neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt and I wrote about academic redshirting for the New York Times last year: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/dont-delay-your-kindergartners-start.html

As we wrote then, "academic redshirting" - the practice of purposely holding a child back from entering kindergarten - is done for 1 in 11 children. There is a belief that this somehow gives kids an advantage. Thanks to Gladwell, the belief that parents do their children a favor by redshirting seems especially prevalent among business types.

However, as Sandra and I pointed out, this is exactly backwards. After reviewing the evidence in depth, we found that the scientific research argues in the other direction: the advantage goes to children who are *young* for their year.

It is ironic that Gladwell's original point has been taken up by ambitious parents who think they are doing their child a favor. The research evidence doesn't even hold for all sports; for example, it isn't true for women's sports, noncontact sports, or even some contact sports. In short, if you are trying to raise the next Wayne Gretzky, sure, hold your boy back. But if you want your child to achieve academically, become better-adjusted, and avoid delinquency - all signs point toward letting him or her advance.

To read more about this topic, readers are welcome to visit my website, welcometoyourbrain.com.

Sam Wang
Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology
Princeton University
 
 
Mar 4, 2012
As it turns out, Mr. Adams's essay has it exactly backwards. The evidence quoted by other commenters is also interpreted incorrectly. My fellow neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt and I wrote about academic redshirting for the New York Times last year: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/dont-delay-your-kindergartners-start.html

As we wrote then, "academic redshirting" - the practice of purposely holding a child back from entering kindergarten - is done for 1 in 11 children. There is a belief that this somehow gives kids an advantage. Thanks to Gladwell, the belief that parents do their children a favor by redshirting seems especially prevalent among business types.

However, as Sandra and I pointed out, this is exactly backwards. After reviewing the evidence in depth, all the scientific evidence argues in the other direction. In fact, the advantages goes to children who are *young* for their year.

It is ironic that Gladwell's original point has been taken up by ambitious parents who think they are doing their child a favor. The research evidence doesn't even hold for all sports; for example, it isn't true for women's sports, noncontact sports, or even some contact sports. In short, if you are trying to raise the next Wayne Gretzky, sure, hold your boy back. But if you want your child to achieve academically, become better-adjusted, and avoid delinquency - all signs point toward letting him or her advance.

To read more about this topic, readers are welcome to visit my website, welcometoyourbrain.com.

Sam Wang
Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology
Princeton University
 
 
Mar 4, 2012
Born in February, pushed into the class ahead. Always the youngest in the class, and the smartest. But I never had the social or emotional development of the rest of the class, never fit in and still don't.
 
 
Mar 3, 2012
They covered this in the first Freakonomics book.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 2, 2012
When I read this I thought that Scott gets funnier after a few cosmopolitans, and that it was bunk. That was 2 days ago. Thinking about it now I realized he might be onto something. I come from a family of 6 kids with birthdays distributed from oldest (1) to youngest (6): 1) June, 2) Mid March, 3) April, 4) Mid March, 5) May, 6) Late March.

The higher education degrees attained by my siblings and I, in the same order as the birthday months are: 1) PhD Animal Science, 2) Did Not Finish BS Animal Science, 3) Bachelor Business, 4) Did Not Finish Bachelor Arts, 5) MS Mech Engineering, 6) BS Animal Science. Based on this, there is a direct correlation between birth month and degree level attained.

However to assume causation without any more evidence is shoddy science at best, but it is very interesting that it worked out so well. Also, in our school district the cutoff for a class was being born before Sept 15.
 
 
Mar 1, 2012
To answer your hypothesis, I was born in November, which put me about 40 days from being the oldest in my school year. I did well, so well that two months in, I actually skipped third grade and was put in fourth. Then I became the youngest of my class.

I admit I had some trouble adapting socially. It literally took years to get back to the standing I had with people of 'my age'. But that's setting aside the academic and sports domain. I had no problem whatsoever in any disciplines. I have two siblings, both in average months. They're doing rather well in their adult lives, but I'd say, given some objective and some subjective points, that I'm the most successful of the three, although I spent most of my school years as the youngest person in my class.
 
 
Mar 1, 2012
A very interesting theory. I am the second of five of which the youngest is 30 and the oldest 40. My older sister has an early birthday (September) and the rest of us have late birthdays ranging from May to July. The two most successful (in a "doing great, but could be homeless in a week if we lose our jobs" sort of way) both have late-month birthdays. The older sibling with the early birth month advantage is less successful compared to two of the four late-month siblings in my family.
 
 
Mar 1, 2012
I think if you did a study, you'd find that both the oldest and youngest excel (the youngest are most aware of their difference, so most likely to actually try to do something significant to compensate).

Scott - how do your comments square with the observation that girls mature faster than boys, so intellectually, across gender, there could be as much as 2 year spread in intellectual maturity within a class, with young boys at the bottom and older girls at the top. This may be consistent with the concentration of girls at the top of college graduating classes recently.
 
 
Mar 1, 2012
I was born in October, in the youngest third of my class. My brother was born in March, a year and a half younger, but he ended up just a year behind me (by far the youngest in his class). We both did well academically. I was never much of an athlete, he was a star. I'm living comfortably, he's a semi-retired multimillionaire.

Meanwhile, my son (8th grade) is one of the very youngest in his class, but academically at the top. But he gave up on sports (he used to play soccer) because the big kids were physically taking him out because they couldn't get the ball from him cleanly, and the former big kids who referee didn't see anything wrong with it.

So my takeaway from this is that birth month affects things which require size (sports), but not so much the academics.
 
 
Mar 1, 2012
I was born on July 31st. In Virginia and South Carolina (during the years I was growing up) that was the cut off day for team sports. Therefore, I was always the youngest in my "year".
If I would have been born on August 1st I would have stayed down in age and been the oldest child in the sports league during my qualifying year. Even in my first year entering a new age division I would have been older than everyone in my year, as it was I was ALWAYS the youngest.
I gave up on football because I kept getting blasted play after play by bigger kids. I loved baseball and did well in it but I always had one brutal year to start off each new age division.
I ended up switching to tennis my junior year of high school because I was small and couldn't make the high school teams that were team sports. I loved sports but could not get noticed by the coaches for anything, no matter how hard I tried. I clawed my way onto the tennis team because it is an objective sport in that the tryouts consist of challenge matches - win your challenge matches and you make the team. I coach can't get around that system without pi$$ing off a lot of parents and kids.
My senior year I finally caught to my peers in growth and ended up going quickly from a small child to a 6' 1" man (nothing special but a least it was something) . I got "noticed" finally by a coach for a small college and I made my way into college tennis.
College tennis was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had close friends and felt like I belonged to something worth while.
I would say that my birth date was a huge negative early, but later it made me better. I sometimes wonder if I hadn't made the high school team in tennis if I would have even gone to college. I was so afraid of life my junior year of high school that almost couldn't get out of bed and go to school. Finally making a team gave me the confidence to keep going after high school.
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog