Monday, July 19, 2010

Risky Business

Do you have a risk taker in your house? You know, one boy who insists on climbing to the top of the swingset, then jumping down? Or one who's always building the bike ramp higher and higher, pushing the limits of safety?

Where does he fall in birth order? Based on a new study, I'm going to guess he's not first.

According to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, younger siblings are more likely to take risks. The authors reviewed Major League Baseball data (how's that for a cool data set?) and found that younger siblings are 10.6 times more likely to attempt to steal a base -- a risky behavior, at least in the game of baseball. Younger sibs are also more likely to be hit by a pitch, which the researchers believe may reflect a refusal to be intimidated. (Or to back down?) They also reviewed previous studies and found that later-birth order children are almost one-and-a-half time more likely to participate in a dangerous physical activity, such as football or skydiving.

My kids aren't old enough for skydiving, but based on limited experience, I'd say the study is right on. The climb-to-the-top-of-the-swingset example at the top of this blog post is cribbed directly from my life. Boy #3 first climbed the park swingset at age 5. By age 4, he was riding a bike without training wheels and skateboarding down the incline of my neighbor's driveway. My oldest son didn't even touch a skateboard until he was 8 or 9.

While the study doesn't attempt to address the reasons behind increased risk taking behavior, the authors suggest three possible contributing factors:
  1. Personality differences -- Some kids are simply born risk takers.
  2. Learned behavior -- Younger sibs learn by watching their older brothers and sisters, so they can skip some trial and error
  3. Sibling rivalry -- Believe it or not, the statistics bear this out. Younger brothers who were separated from their older sib by less than five years were more likely to take risks, especially when/if they competed in similar categories. An attempt to stand out, maybe?

All three causes seem plausible, but I think the experts are missing one big one here: parental experience/benign neglect. With our first children, we tend to freak out over every. little. thing. If the Cheerio drops on the floor, we quickly whisk it away. If he approaches a skateboard at age 3, we redirect him to a more age-appropriate toy. But by the time there are two kids on the scene, we've learned to relax a bit. A combination of parental experience and lack of time (because, really, who can hover when there's a toddler and preschooler running around the house?) generally leads to a more relaxed style of parenting, a live-and-let-live attitude that gives kids the freedom to try things. Other parents freak out when my boys climb ever higher in the tree. This many kids into it, I trust them enough to let them try. I also, to tell you the truth, would rather spend my time chatting with other parents at the park than harping at my kids to stay out of the trees. See what I mean by benign neglect?

What about you? Are your younger boys more likely to take risks? Why (or why not)?


  1. Nope, not here. My oldest climbs everything, jumps off anything, and took his own training wheels off at 4. My younger son is the cautious one (but only when measured by the standard his brother set).

  2. Actually, I think it was my first who took the most risks. Not until he was about 10, though. I think by then he thought he was ruler of the roost, and he took the risks while they watched.

    To tell you the truth, by the time the rest of them were old enough to follow suit, I think I had changed my definition of "risk"!

  3. I have three boys (ages 7, 5, and nearly 3) and the "baby" is the one who broke his arm climbing down a ladder. He's the one whom my husband describes as "hilarious and confident" and I describe as "funny and fearless." Actually, usually I just say "He's wild." The oldest boy is the caretaker (self-appointed) while the middle boy tends to try to keep his own space from being invaded!

  4. yes, definitely true here. big boy didn't start going down the larger slides until little one was already an expert. 2yrs age difference.