Opinion Columns & Blogs

For parents, the family equation is

Parents are furious with The Washington Post for reporting on a Brigham Young University study that concluded parents spend 3,000 more "quality hours" with firstborn children than they do with subsequent progeny.

Conversations such as the following have triggered parents' ire:

Firstborn: "Hi, Sis, how are the kids. By the way, did you see that article? I always said Mom and Dad loved me best!"

Secondborn: "Well, you're still goofy-looking -- and fat!"


Secondborn: "Mom, How are things in Florida? You're going to leave her Grandma's silver service, aren't you? ..."

Just why BYU economist Joseph Price felt obliged to knock over this hornets nest isn't clear. He reportedly massaged data on time parents spent with 15,000 children between the ages of 4 and 13. He found that mothers on average spend 25 extra minutes a day with their firstborn, and dads 20 minutes more.

By now, we should be accustomed to academics' knack for painstakingly researching topics only to confirm what was widely known.

In this case, The Post writer wrote, there will follow debate over whether Price's findings explain why firstborn children "get better test scores, more education and higher-paying jobs."

What may be of equal significance is whether firstborns also tend more often to abuse addictive substances, cheat on spouses or become mass murderers.

In any case, the blame surely will fall on parents.

My personal litmus test for determining how many children a family has is to observe what the mother does when her baby's teething ring falls on the floor in a restaurant. If the harried woman pulls a sterilized replacement from her bag or hurries to the ladies' room to rinse it with soap and water, I know it's her first baby. If she uses a Handiwipe or dips the ring in her water glass, I figure it's the second child. If, however, she nonchalantly dusts off grit with her napkin before shoving it back into the kid's maw, I conclude it's No. 3 or higher.

Researchers refer to "waning novelty" as one reason for the apparent discrepancy in time spent with various children. They could have attributed it to growth in parenting savvy. First-time parents, for example, are likely to fret that their darling is a picky eater. By the time No. 2 comes along, the kid is given two options: Eat or not.

Adding children forever alters family geometry. While it's likely that the firstborn will get top billing, much of that is because every phase in life is a milestone -- first tooth, first grade, first Christmas play, etc.

Each milestone is exaggerated by parental anxiety. With the second child, mom and dad understand that the crisis will pass, and the kid is likely to fare better because parental angst is minimal.

Veteran parents would say that, while adding children is no great feat, no one has figured out how to add hours to the day. Simple math would indicate there's less time to spend with any one child as siblings begin to change the equation.

It would be a cruel Creator that didn't provide offsetting compensation for parents of multiple children.

Indeed, God's sense of humor may best be reflected in that the second child never seems to respect the fundamental truths of child rearing that the parents recognized with the older brother or sister. Parents whose firstborn was colicky will bore you to tears bragging on how their second child sleeps through the night. If the oldest child brought home straight A's, parents should be prepared for notes from the next child's teachers.

Measuring "quality time" parents spend with children is well and good, but experts ought to factor in that secondborn and younger children have siblings to teach them the ropes. Indeed, parents should find consolation for the lack of time spent with younger children in knowing that their firstborn is passing along family knowledge.

The "quality" of that sibling time may be another topic for research, of course.

As a parent of nearly 34 years, I know one thing for certain: I learned more from my kids than they ever did from me.