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Parents favor the first-born, putting sibs at risk

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Reading, eating dinner together and talking are "quality time" activities, according to study author and Cornell University Ph.D. student Joe Price. Watching television - even "educational programs" - does not count as a beneficial activity. (Courtesy of Andrew Newman)

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Bobby Morrison, 5, performs at a family show orchestrated by his older sister, Katie, 7. One reason younger siblings may receive less attention from their parents than their older siblings is because their big brothers and sisters can alleviate their parents of some entertainment duties. (Courtesy of Audrey Morrison)

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Katie Morrison, 7, helps her parents take care of her 5-year-old twin brother and sister by organizing musical performances, dramatic stage productions and seasonal treasure hunts. As a result, her parents have some more free time but her younger siblings don't receive as much quality parent-child time. (Courtesy of Audrey Morrison)

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Audrey Morrison, of Glenview, Ill., says she struggles to spend one-on-one time with her 5-year-old twins and knows she has given more attention to her 7-year-old daughter over the years. Here, Audrey steals some precious moments alone with Maggie, 5, during a vacation at Martha's Vineyard. (Courtesy of Audrey Morrison)

It’s official. Mom and dad really do love older siblings more.

Well, sort of.

Parents spend significantly more time with their first-born child than with their younger kids when the children are between 4 and 13, according to a recent study. The research, conducted by Cornell University Ph.D. student Joe Price, found that although everyone gets equal attention on a given day, the younger children do not receive the same “quality time” as the first child did when he was that age.

And experts worldwide say that lack of positive attention can increase children’s chances of dropping out of high school or being arrested. One 2005 study looking at Norwegian families even found that younger children earned lower wages and were more likely to become teenage parents.

Price, 28, used the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey to track how parents spent time with their first-born child. He then compared that with the time another, near-identical family with a second-born child of the same age, spent together.

The results, Price said, made him think about how he has divided his time among his own three children. According to his findings, the first-born child in a two-child family receives 20 to 30 minutes more quality time each day, with big brother getting 3,000 more mom and dad hours between ages 4 and 13. The numbers only increase between a first and third or first and fourth child.

Although they aren’t proud of it, some parents recognize the inequality in their own families.

“It’s kind of like a novelty. Everything they do is new,” Bryan Boudreaux, 38, of Nesconset, N.Y., said of the oldest of his three children. Sheepish about favoring his 12-year-old son, the law enforcement officer said, “By the time you get around to the second or third, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s great.’”

Audrey Morrison, a mother in Glenview, Ill., also feels guilty that she and her husband focus too much on their eldest, 7-year-old Katie, rather than their two younger children.

“When it’s your oldest, you’re looking forward to it,” explained Morrison, 43. “With the other ones, it’s not new to you. I feel bad saying this; I’m not proud of it.”

Morrison, a management consultant, said she used to shop with Katie for American Girl Bitty Baby doll accessories. Katie couldn’t have cared less, but mom was excited. Now that 5-year-old Maggie is ready for the dolls--and probably more interested than Katie was--her mother doesn’t indulge in toy dress-up much anymore.

She tries to balance her time, reviewing spelling words with Katie and then helping Maggie and her twin brother, Bobby, make birthday invitations one night in late January. But Morrison sees an obvious difference in one major activity. She and her husband, a sales consultant, used to always read two books to Katie before bed. Now, to save time, they read just one to each of the three children.

Parents who favor their first born aren’t necessarily neglectful. As Price notes, some parents grow more efficient over the years and no longer need an hour to give multiplication quizzes or get everyone dressed in the morning. Additionally, by the time second tot is born, mom and dad may move up the corporate ladder and have more disposable income. Spending more time at the office as a new executive has its downside, but indulging in special gifts or a long vacation can be beneficial.

Another reason little siblings may spend less time with their parents is because they have older siblings to pitch in with entertainment duties.

Katie Morrison, for example, has turned into quite the stage director. Organizing a supporting cast that includes stuffed animals and her brother and sister, Katie arranges ticket sales, makes a rudimentary set and puts on performances (where she is the star, of course). While her parents attend the final presentation, Katie supervises her brother and sister during rehearsals.

But leaving everything to siblings, baby sitters or peers can have its downside. Decades of research have shown that children who do not spend time reading, playing or eating dinner with their parents complete fewer years of education, are arrested more and earn lower wages.

Such children “don’t feel cared for. They don’t feel understood and accepted and valued,” explained Dr. Martha Edwards, director of the Center for the Developing Child and Family at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in Manhattan. “They feel like they’re extraneous to their parents’ lives. Coming out of that, there are a lot of indications for how secure they feel in the world.”

Even if parents are busy, experts say, they should make sure that whatever little time they spend with their children is “quality time.” That includes reading, playing, doing homework and talking, according to Price.

Susan Lazarow, of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has the gnawing feeling that her time with daughter Amanda, 3, doesn’t always fit that description. Lazarow home schools her older daughter, 5-year-old Alexa, and Amanda sits in on the lessons.

[Alexa] requires my attention. So Amanda might be in the room, but she might not be getting my full attention,” Lazarow, 39, said recently while watching both girls participate in an art class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Doctors stress that parents should pay more attention to quality than sheer quantity of time.

“You don’t apportion 15 minutes a day, you just do your best,” said Dr. Stanley Turecki, a Manhattan-based adolescent psychiatrist and author of "Normal Children Have Problems, Too."

Turecki suggested scheduling interactive one-on-one activities--not movie dates--that interest the child.

Boudreaux tries to do just that. About three years ago, he began taking his first-born son, Nicholas, kayaking. When 8-year-old Zachary was old enough, the two went on nature walks. Once it grew clear that Zachary wasn’t a woodsman, Boudreaux switched to pizza lunches, and started taking his 5-year-old son, Justin, to dates at a different pizza parlor. They never go to the other’s restaurant.

“I try to give them their own special place,” he explained. “I want to make them feel like they’re the only kids in the world.”

E-mail: msk2135@columbia.edu