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Parents stricter with older kids to set example: game theory study

Parents are more likely to punish their teen's risky behavior when there are younger kids in the family, driven by a desire to set a strict example for these siblings, says new game theory research from the University of Maryland, Duke University and The Johns Hopkins University.

The research team used economic game theory to predict levels of parental discipline. Parental concern for their reputation as a disciplinarian with the younger children would be a powerful motivator, they predicted.

Their study, published in the April edition of the Economic Journal, concludes that the exercise of parental control is effective in modifying the risky adolescent behavior.

This is especially true in the case of the older children, who expect stronger penalties because their parents are making an example of them.

But as the younger siblings grow up and the games get played out a second or third time, the parents resolve tends to dwindle, the researchers say.

Tender-hearted parents find it harder and harder to engage in tough love as they have fewer young children in the house, since they have less incentive to uphold reputations as disciplinarians, says University of Maryland economist, Ginger Gin, one of three co-authors of the study, and herself an older sister and a parent of two. As a result, the theory predicts that last-born and only children, knowing that they can get away with much more than their older brothers and sisters, are, on average, more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Speaking from personal experience, Jin adds, We became stricter with our son after our daughter was born.

The study, Games Parents and Adolescents Play, is co-authored by V. Joseph Hotz, an economics professor at Duke; Lingxin Hao, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins; and Jin at Maryland.

My older sister always complains that she never got away with anything when she was growing up, and we all agree that my youngest sister got away with murder, says Hotz, who was the middle child of five siblings and is now the parent of two grown children. Thats the story of this study.

To test their reputational theory, they analyzed existing survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The National Longitudinal Study of Youth tracked more than 11,000 Americans for over 16 years (1979 to 1994). Specifically they focused on the rate of pregnancy and the teen dropping out of high school. To estimate parental sanction, they measured whether the teen was allowed to remain at home and level of financial support after reaching age 18.

In their analysis, the researchers found:

  • Having one additional younger sibling lowers the likelihood of an adolescent s dropping out of high school by 3 percentage points. This amounts to one eighth of the average dropout rate of the sample (24%).

  • The probability of parental financial support to a rebellious child is significantly lower if the family still has another child under age 18. For example, the probability of parents providing free room and board is 4.5 percentage points lower to an adult child who dropped out of school and 9.5 percentage points lower to an adult daughter who had a baby as a teen. These reductions are sizable given the sample average of living with parents after age 18 is about 20 percent.

Parents often worry about how forceful of a stand to take in response to their older childrens behavior, said Hopkins sociologist Lingxin Hao. Our study finds that some parents are successfully using this strategy.

The paper recommends that policy interventions to reduce dropping out of school, teenage childbearing and other risky behaviors should emphasize the role of parents as well as peer pressure.


Contact: Neil Tickner
University of Maryland

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