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?


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Mar 1, 2012
Last year, when I was working with several schools, I asked about this. A middle school principal in an affluent district said they had looked for correlations with birthday & not found anything. All schools keep records of student performance & also have birthdays. So it's a pretty easy study to do.
Mar 1, 2012
Our school year in Norway starts in August. I was born in May, and was one of the youngest in my class. My brother was born in February, and my sister in October.

I was the most successful, with my brother as number 2 and my sister in third place.

It doesn't fit with your theory, but fortunately it doesn't really matter statistically, as you would need a sample of a few thousand people to be able to draw any conclusions. :-)
Mar 1, 2012

Factual data plotted to show 10th Grade performance in one of the states in India. You probably already know this site and owner - he had to take down the crowd-sourced effort of having the entire Dilbert comic ever published text searchable sometime ago.
Feb 29, 2012
Seems like a lot of commenters doubt the research, but it is pretty clear that older kids do better academically, socially, and athletically. teachers opinions of the older kids are more positive, just as is true for coaches of older youth athletes. Despite this, many parents send bright kids to school early. It makes a lot more sense to hold kids home an extra year.
Feb 29, 2012
My sister is older in both years and in days of the month. I was more prepared for life then her. Admittedly, she is only 2 years and 2 days older, and we were both born right before the school year started so that would put us as younger kids.
On the other hand, my wife whose birthday is 99 days after mine was much better prepared for life.
So what's that do to the theory?
Feb 29, 2012
I was born in November, and I'm a university graduate (I'm in Canada, where college and university are different institutions). My sister was born in January, and is a high school drop out.

That said, I'm also very cynical about school and probably would have dropped out had I not seen the advantages that a degree conveys (not the education, just the fact of having a diploma)
Feb 29, 2012
I was in the older half of my class. Can't say I'm more successful than the others.

The others in the older half included our valedictorian (who went on to work for NASA) and a couple of guys who are working as office drones or welders today, and a bunch of stuff in between. I know that our most athletic guys did include some from the younger half, but I can't remember enough to be sure if they were some freaky exception or something.

As to my siblings, I think my younger brother is probably what we would call the most "successful" of us. He was sort of in the middle of his class age-wise until the 9th grade, when he transferred to a school in the Southern Hemisphere (where the school year starts in Jan/Feb instead of Aug/Sept). I think in that school he was in the older half of his class because of the staggered year.

But yeah, there are other criteria to measure our lives by. Which one of us is happiest? Which one is the biggest jerk? That might have nothing to do with relative age in the classroom.
Feb 29, 2012
Born in December, but since I didn't speak English well, yet (first language being Finnish), I started the following year and was one of the oldest students. My sister was born in August, and was in the middle of the pack.

I was always a way better student. After school, though, we both earned good degrees (plural, each), and we're both in the same low-six-figure income range. I would probably call it all even.
Feb 29, 2012
Here again we have correlation without causality.

I was born in October. I'm an only child, so I can't discuss any siblings. There have been studies that show that first-born or only children do better in school, so that should be taken into account.

I started school at four years old, and thus was a year younger than my contemporaries in school. In fact, I later found out that I was more than a year younger than the next youngest member of my high school class.

I have a high IQ. I graduated from high school at 16. Good news - I did well in school. Bad news - I was socially behind my contemporaries.

I have done pretty well in life, economically. The secret to my success, if there is one, is to always take on the greatest challenge I can. I always took on the hardest classes in school, and the most difficult major in college. I went into Naval Aviation, and took on the most challenging flight category, that of a carrier-based fighter pilot.

Overall, I don't think the month in which I was born had much affect on how I ended up in life. But this is all speculation; I'll wait for the studies to come out. Give me $500K and I'll do a study on it. Suckers.
Feb 29, 2012
Stop with the anecdotes already.

Statistically the best thing your parents can do that is optional is influence your peer group, as studies have shown that your peers have greater influence in what they do than your parents.

Parental influences are expressed far more by what they are (such as their income, age, background) than anything they actively do (such as join PTAs, force you to take extra classes etc).

Also chosing a month to conceive in a bit random. It can take months to conceive. Also, if you are aiming to put them right in the very oldest slot for their year and they come a couple of weeks early, oops, they are now the youngest... (not forgetting either different places can have different cut off dates for school years so what if you move).

Finally, from what I remember, with academic gap starts small and decreases with age, meaning that there is no statistical difference by mid-teens when most children sit their exams. Education unlike sports isn't self selecting, all children have to participate so the older 'cream' doesn't benefit in the long term by starting out slightly ahead - unlike sports teams with limited spots everyone is stuck playing to the end. Ultimately, having kids at a certain point in the year may increase their chance of sporting success, but even being born at the right time of year only makes you what 12 times more likely at most to be a big sports star, by that reasoning buying 12 lottery tickets should win you the jackpot - give it a try and see how that pans out...
Feb 29, 2012
My brother was born 10 years and a day after me, so we have the same birth month in April. I'm a moderately successful engineer and will be 34 in a few weeks; he's a nearly 24 yr old college dropout who can't hold a job and won't take any responsibility for himself.

But he's a middle child, so maybe that trumps birth month.
Feb 29, 2012
I was born in July, and barely graduated high school (but went on to get a BS in Biology, an MS, and a Doctorate). My sister was also born in July, but she graduated high school early (with honors), and graduated a BS in Nursing program early. My wife was born in October and was a year older than all her classmates. She said high school was a breeze. She has a BS in Biology and a MS. My mom was born in October and was also a year older than all her classmates. She struggled in school, and quit college after an AA in Liberal Studies.
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Feb 29, 2012
You should be clear on what is success first. For example, my brother was one of the oldest in his class, physically strong, athletic, dominant and a rebel. He was succesful at sports and not getting pushed over. Now he works a dead-end blue collar job and barely gets by, as he lacks the ability to learn or focus.

I was one of the youngest of the class. Physically fit and tall, so never a pushover, but no sports ambitions. I was more of the silent, creative introvert that was not to be messed with. In school, I was relatively invisible. In my career however, I'm quite successful. Creative, versatile and pragmatic, the best of blue collar and white collar combined.

What I'm saying is this: in 99% of cases, and this applies even more outside the U.S, being succesful at sports means nothing other than the temporary glory, attention and girls. In fact, I'd argue the opposite is true. Those that focus so much on sports yet not make it into a sports career are intellectually behind in real life, which starts after school.

In real life, the masters of the world are bankers, entrepeneurs and nerds. They are succesful by their intellectual power in creating, selling or destroying value.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 29, 2012
You are really talking about the expectations adults have for kids. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that kids respond positively to high expectations. Being older tends to lead to higher expectations and therefore, could correlate with better outcomes. My personal experience doesn’t track with that, but there were other issues involved besides age amongst my sisters and I.

For my own kids, my middle son is the youngest for his class. He was also the most likely to be overlooked at home because his is relatively quiet and relatively compliant compared to his brothers. By your measure, you’d expect him to fare the worst. In fact, he has blazed his own path. In a non-sports family (among the parents, anyway), he is a varsity team captain. When I had him pegged as a total math/science kid, he joined the school paper – and demonstrated to the world that he is an excellent writer with the heart of a poet. He plans to study biology – so I was not wrong on the science thing – but he has refused to be boxed in or limited by the expectations of others – mine or anyone else’s. We are still waiting to hear back from colleges, but with 3.97 GPA, an IB diploma, National Merit Finalist standing and plenty of genuine extra-curricular interests (as opposed to the standard resume-boosters), I suspect he will do well.

One observation that I found striking – but that would no doubt be shouted down in most venues: My husband and I noticed that nearly every family (out of several hundred) that we have met through various West Point parent events – is an intact, two-parent family. We didn’t do a formal survey, of course. We just noticed that the last names of both parents always seem to match that of the cadet. In conversation, I have only spoken with one stepfather. In that case, he’d been in the picture from the time his stepson was four years old. He had an amazing bond with the kid. I’m sure there are other family structures – but it was a pretty striking departure from the usual diversity of living arrangements that we encounter among our kids’ friends and classmates.

Obviously kids from all kinds of backgrounds go one to be quite successful in life. West Point cadets are an interesting case, however. West Point doesn’t take legacies. Every cadet has to stand on his or her own. If a kid did find a way to game the system and get in on something other than personal merit, he or she would probably regret that choice. It’s a tough way to get a degree if you aren’t highly motivated.

If I were advising a new couple on one thing they could do to help their child succeed, I would tell them to make their own relationship work. Demonstrate love, commitment, maturity, problem solving and resolve in working through your own personal and relationship issues. That is probably the best (and the toughest) gift parents can give their kids.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 29, 2012
The best thing a parent can do is to make friends with successful people (or people who will become successful by the time the kid grows up). That way, when the adult son/daughter is looking for a job, the parent can say talk with Steve, he works for an accounting firm.

I heard that most jobs are found by networking with people you already know; I'm willing to bet a lot of that networking for young adults is done by their parents. A 50 year old will more likely have a lot of pull at a company, and a 22 year old wont know many 50 year olds that don't also know his parents.
Feb 29, 2012
There was a psychological study done on the subject of what makes for successful kids, and the group discovered 40 assets. very interesting. www.search-institute.org/assets
Feb 29, 2012
I question the assumption that being more mature than the rest of the class is an advantage. It would result in never being challenged by the material.

Suppose you chose a set of children and arbitrarily held them back one year in school. Do you imagine that would give them an advantage? If so, iterate. How many years back do you hold them before it stops being an advantage?
Feb 29, 2012
I was born in October and the school where I went would accept students born up to December 31st. My neighbor and cousin were born in March & February respectively the next year (4-5 months later) and started in the year younger class. When it comes to intelligence I passed both of them and still do today. I have an office job doing programming while they are both mechanics. I was also the only one who went to a 4 year college, the most they did was go to a trade school. When it came to fitness, they both beat me, sometimes literally. Of course both of them are married with a child and I am still single, but that has nothing to do with birth month, does it?
Feb 29, 2012
Parents have held back kids who would have been among the youngest so that they enter the class among the oldest. Since the advent of individualized instruction, and the Apple II, learning is not timed, perhaps making the effects of social interaction greater.

I think the biggest influence is keeping TV/media in check. Uncontrolled access to media leads to addictive problems. IMHO
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Feb 29, 2012
June baby here, which meant that I was always one of the youngest in my class. While I was never really athletic enough to make it stick (I stopped playing competitive sports in middle school), I was always at the top of the class academically. A good number of my fellow classmates have all graduated with undergraduate degrees (high school class of '07, undergraduate class of '11), but as far as I know, when I started on my doctorate in chemistry, I became the only one from my high school class of about 65 students to pursue a graduate degree.

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