Winter birthday?

A new study says that may say something about your parents


Winter birthday?

A winter birthday is a notoriously bad omen. On average, those born between fall and spring make less money, get sick more often and do more poorly in sports and school, according to studies dating back to the early 1900s. Researchers have wrestled with reasons for this inequity, and in the last couple of decades, some well-meaning bureaucrats have even tried to counteract it, staggering start dates for kindergarten pupils in hopes that it would give the November and December kids a much-needed boost. The experiments typically assume that the age gulf portends failure. Younger kids feel out of their depth from the time they set foot in a classroom or a gymnasium, they speculate, and never quite catch up.

But what if they were looking through the wrong end of the telescope? What if being born late in the year was an effect—and not simply a cause—of socio-economic disadvantage?

A couple of economists at the University of Notre Dame raise just these questions in a recently published study, arguing the issue isn’t so much in what season children are born, as why they are born at a given time, and to whom. Using a combination of U.S. census data and information from birth certificates, Kasey Buckles and Daniel Hungerman reveal that fall or winter children are more likely to be born to teenage mothers, unmarried women or women who never finished high school. By statistical standards, the differences are striking: a kid born in January is 10 per cent more likely to have a mom without a high school diploma than one born in May; he has equally higher chances of having a teenage mom.

More intriguing still (and potentially more explosive) are the explanations. Buckles and Hungerman cite previous studies noting that women prefer to give birth during the spring or early summer. They also note that women who are educated, married, wealthy and past their teen years are more apt to plan their pregnancies and time their births. The result, they reason, is a disproportionately high number of babies born to young, single, poor and uneducated women during the winter. Mothers are only part of the picture. Sperm counts and motility go down during the heat of summer, the researchers note, so the male partners of those women are less likely to produce children who are born in the spring. “They’re more likely to work outdoors, or they may not have air conditioning,” Buckles explains in an interview from her office in South Bend, Ind. “In general, they’re just more exposed to the elements.”

The findings seem sure to reverberate through social science circles, not least due to their classist overtones. So-called “relative age” research was already enjoying top-of-the-agenda treatment after the Canadian-born author Malcolm Gladwell featured it in Outliers, a bestselling book exploring the roots of success. Relative-age theory holds that we plant the seeds of inequity in school and sports by lumping kids born late in the year together with those born months earlier: the older children enjoy an early advantage, Gladwell argues, because they are bigger, stronger and more intellectually developed; blessed with the confidence that comes with early success, they are more likely to thrive later in life. Buckles and Hungerman, however, suggest success may be partly predetermined, and they offer persuasive evidence linking winter birth with low-rent parentage, and spring birth to—well—poshness.

It is a classic nature-nurture debate, but not one Gladwell is interested in having. “I hate the ‘nature’ argument,” he recently told ESPN. “The only thing we can do something about is the nurture part, and that’s why we ought to spend so much more time talking about it.” Buckles, however, doesn’t think the two theories are incompatible. Starting school or hockey six or eight months younger than many of one’s classmates may indeed set a kid back, she says. And it’s not like she equates low socio-economic status with low intelligence.

Still, the results of the new research reveal a fatal blind spot in efforts to reverse the relative-age effect—in particular attempts to fiddle kindergarten start dates to help younger children. Many of these experiments are based on studies that indicate children born just before the enrolment cut-off date (typically Jan. 1) fare more poorly than those born just after it. Blaming the relative-age effect for the difference may be overly simplistic, says Buckles, because “those children may be different in other ways.” Which is not exactly good news to the babies of November and December. You can no more choose your family, after all, than you can decide the day you are born.


Winter birthday?

  1. Statistics are alot like torture; if you beat them enough, they give you what you want.

  2. They are making it sound so fatalistic, but when you actually look at the details – a 10 percent higher chance that you have a teenage mother – it is not as signficant as they are making it out to be. They are completely overlooking the fact that in any cohort, there will be a dramatic range of academic performance. Some will do very well, while others will lag behind, but most children will be somewhere in the middle. The range for winter born children is slightly skewed when compared to children born in the spring/summer, but it does not guarantee that winter born children will have problems or lag behind their peers, as this article is suggesting.

  3. Have you ever tried to get pregnant? Planning a pregnancy only works one every zillion times. Maybe that is where the 10% descrepancy comes in.

  4. I come from a family of all winter babies. My parents were married when they had all of us. My folks werre farmers and that is why they planned on having all winter babies so as not to interfere with seeding in the spring or harvest come September. We all do well for ourselves and are happy.

  5. This is one of the most ridiculous articles i have ever read. I was born on December 2nd and all of my siblings were winter babies except one. Both my parents have university degrees and I highly doubt that teenage mothers usually have their children in the winter.

  6. Everything in my own experience completely contradicts the conclusions in this article. I, my partner, and all my closest friends all have winter birthdays. We were born to highly educated, comfortably middle class parents and are now all in professional or academic careers.

    As regards the kindergarten start age: being a winter baby, I was in the same grade as kids almost a whole year older than me. What this article perhaps overlooks is that parents of winter babies have greater choice about when to start their kids in school. If their birthday is near the cutoff (in my school board’s case, March 1st) parents can elect to keep their kids home another year. Those kids who enter the school system early are the ones who are emotionally and mentally ready for school.

    I’m not necessarily questioning the validity of this study’s methods, but I do question its broad applicability. It just isn’t so for me, or many others, that I know.

  7. How bizarre – in the UK, we’re told that winter babies have a distinct advantage when it comes to education. They are more mature and ready for education than, say, their summer baby counterparts and do really well. In fact, statistics here say that summer babies – those born between June and August – tend to struggle in school as they are nearly a whole year behind their classmates; plus they are more likely to leave education earlier and not go to university. See: http://timesonline.typepad.com/schoolgate/2008/12/when-should-sum.html

  8. I'm a Winter baby and I have a sports schollarship so when they say that we arn't that great at sports and that we wont excell in school, it's total bogus. I'm 16 almost 17 in a few days and my child is due in May but I've got a good paying job and I'm still going to school. Mine wasn't planned but I'm sticking to it because I know it will all work out. Sure I have another year till I graduate but that's fine I've got the resorces that I need in order to become sucessful. I personally think that this artical needs to get it's facts right and not put down all those winter babies. All babies are equal, no one is higher than the other nor lower than the other. Everyone has flaws whether you can see them or not.
    -From the Salmon Arm Secondary Winter Babies-
    " Stop discriminating against us start looking at other months and you'll see we're not all so different from the others… Get your facts right!"

    • STATISTICAL data is not accurate nor is it supposed to be. Finding an exception here does not negate the findings.

      In another logic, it's like saying: Smoking leads to cancer. It doesn't mean that all smokers have cancer, nor that all people who have cancer are smokers… it just means, a GREATER percentage of those who have cancer, are smokers.. we just have to find out WHY. Which is what they're doing in the study…
      Statistics have shown that people born in winter are more likely to fail in life. It doesn't mean there are no successful winter-born people.

  9. Some comments discrediting this article are actually proving the theory: Finding exceptions does not discredit the facts. You obviously don't understand scientific research. Were you paying attention in class? :)

    Not to say that I agree with the assumptions, there has to be another reason behind the statistics.

    • I agree. Winter baby Jesykja's comment – riddled with grammar and spelling errors – illustrates the theory of this article perfectly.

  10. That actually depends really on how you enjoy your birthday.

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