A Time to Be Born

June 8, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Primates of Park Avenue is Wednesday Martin’s quasi-anthropological account of the young and the wealthy on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The “wife bonus” got most of the pre-publication flap, but the item that struck me was about family planning.

Martin was further panicked to learn her child had been born in the wrong month; many women on the Upper East Side time their pregnancies and IVF treatments to school enrollment, so their child will begin school at the oldest age possible — a practice known as redshirting.

“You go to the Upper East Side, and everyone will be heavily pregnant in the same month, because the time to have a baby is October or November,” Martin says. “Those are the good birthdays.” [New York Post.]

And why not? We now know, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, that role birth month plays a large part in who winds up at the top in Canadian junior league hockey.* Couple that with the child-rearing strategy that Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation” typical of middle- and upper-class parents. The agrarian metaphor is apt. For Martin’s East Side one-percenters, even before the cultivation of an actual child comes a careful decision about when to plant the seed. 

In this, they resemble the breeders of race horses. The official “birthday” of all thoroughbreds is January 1, so breeders time things so that for maximum development at that cutoff date.  That’s why American Pharoah and four of the other seven horses in the Belmont were foaled in April.** 

At private schools in Manhattan, where tuition fees are comparable to stud fees (K- 5 will run you upwards of $200K), a similar logic makes October and November “good birthdays. ” The cutoff date is September 1; children entering kindergarten must have turned five before that date. Those October children will have turned five eleven months before the cutoff. 

Do the Primates of Park Avenue really time their pregnancies? And does the strategy work? Are elite-school classes in May and June unpunctuated by cupcakes?  If anyone has data on the birthdays of kids in the lower schools of Dalton, Trinity, Horace Mann, etc., please come forth.

In horse racing, early developmental advantages fade as the horses become older. But Gladwell argues that for humans – or at least, for Canadian junior league hockey players – the initial advantage expands thanks to the way the system is organized. It’s what Robert Merton called “The Matthew Effect.” The parents of Park Avenue seem to subscribe to this same idea – that the October advantage extends past kindergarten, past grade school and high school, into the Ivies and then to career success.

What puzzles me is my own reaction that there’s something not quite right with this birth-timing. I accept other aspects of family planning – controlling the spacing of siblings or timing a birth so as to minimize the inconvenience to the parents’ work lives (especially given the anti-family US policies on parental leave). The same goes for the other things parents do to cultivate their children and ensure their chances of a successful life – the culturally enriching experiences, the “good” schools, the tutors, the coaches and, if necessary, the therapists – assuming that these are in fact helpful. There’s really no reason I should find the “good birthday” strategy objectionable. But I do.

 * In first chapter of his best-seller Outliers, Gladwell shows that the ranks of the top Canadian junior league hockey teams (boys 16-19years old) are heavy with boys born in the first quarter of the year.  That’s because official age is determined by the calendar year.  The  born on January 1, 2008 and the boy born 12 months later on Dec. 31, 2008 are both seven-year olds.  But the January boy has a huge edge in physical development. He is more likely to be selected for better teams, better coaching, and better competition.

** Horses born in the early spring mature faster than do those born earlier. 
Here is a chart of the birth months of winners of the individual Triple Crown individual races since 1970 and the birth month of horses sold at the Keeneland Yearling sales. (To keep both variables on the same chart, I have divided the sales figure by 10. Data source here.)

If you are spending $60,000 to have your mare bred to Pioneer of the Nile (American Pharoah’s sire) or $300,000 for Tapit, the sire of Frosted, who finished second in the Belmont, you want to make sure that your foal has the best chance to win these million-dollar purses.

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