Let that be a warning to you

April 29, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

I was right. My parents were tougher on me than they were on my three younger sisters.

I was in seventh grade when the James Bond movie Goldfinger was released, and all my junior high friends had planned a giant group-date.

It took many days and many more tears to persuade my parents to let me see such an "adult" movie. I'd have died if I had to tell my friends I wasn't allowed to go.

My sixth-grade sister saw the movie the next weekend. I don't think she even asked permission.

According to a study published in this month's issue of Economic Journal and written by university researchers at Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Duke, my parents were using me to establish their reputation among my younger sisters as powerful disciplinarians.

That reputation is what would keep my younger sisters from stepping over the line.

The study, titled "Games Parents and Adolescents Play," suggests that parents are more likely to withdraw financial support from older siblings who either drop out of high school or, in the case of girls, become pregnant, than their younger brothers and sisters who find themselves in the same situations.

The researchers found that this harsh response deters brothers and sisters from engaging in these high-risk behaviors.

"We heard a lot of this folklore about parents punishing the older child more harshly," said Hopkins sociology professor Lingxin Hao. "But it is not just anecdotal. It is a national pattern. So we looked at what is the parents' motivation."

The study is part of research into preventing teens from engaging in high-risk activities that can have irreversible consequences: unprotected sex, drug use, drinking and dropping out of high school.

I don't think James Bond movies qualify.

But the researchers did find that parents are significantly less strict with each succeeding child - not out of parenting fatigue, but because the audience is shrinking.

Although the parents may feel guilty about their zero-tolerance stand with the older child, they believe a forceful stand will keep the younger ones from making the same mistake.

"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," Hao said.

There are many other influences on a teenager's behavior: peers, teammates, community, school, other adults. Parents are only part of the equation. But they may be a bigger part than they believe.

"This is clear cut," said Hao. "The punishment is not for the child who already committed the risky behavior. That is already done. It is to influence the thinking of the siblings."

I am not sure this works in every family. Not only did my younger sister get to see the James Bond movie when she was much too young, the baby in the family dated a biker before she wised up.

She is the picture of rectitude now, though.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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Read recent columns by Susan Reimer at baltimoresun.com/reimer

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