Dear Dr. Sylvia

Birth Order Can Affect Underachievement

May, 2014


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 people who are underachievers, and is there a best way to parent to prevent underachievement?



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 don’t, 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. A younger child might dethrone older siblings, causing them to lose confidence and underachieve. While children who are close in age tend to be more competitive with one another, one can’t always generalize about age differences.

The competition that siblings feel can cause children to assume that they can’t do as well as the others. These children may give up trying and end up feeling less smart than their siblings. By not trying, they have an excuse for doing poorly.

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, leaving them more likely to become frustrated with the steady engagement and concentration required to become good students.

Parenting has always made, and will always make, a difference; but siblings, peers, and teachers also contribute to a child’s motivation 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. Despite the fact that there are so many high achievers, there is also an epidemic of underachievement.

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 How to Parent So Children Will Learn (Great Potential Press, 2008).

Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For free newsletters about sibling competition and/or learning disabilities, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s articles on this topic and submit questions online at All questions are answered.

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