Birth order theory

Are you the first-born, middle child, or baby of the family? Or maybe an only child? Ever wondered how the order of your birth into the family has affected you psychologically?

Many psychologists believe that the position that you are born into within your family can have a significant influence on some of the personality characteristics that you develop as you grow up.

Birth order theory can help to explain why children raised in the same family environment with a strong genetic relationship, can have such different personalities.

Penni Drysdale steps us through the various family positions, the ways they affect us, and how, as parent, we can help our own children through this.

How Birth Order Affects Your Child’s Personality

Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler came up with the theory more than a century ago, and since then, there’s been lots of debate in the world of psychology about the significance of birth order on the development of personality compared to other factors like genetics, temperament, “non-shared environment” and parenting styles. Some researchers suggest that the link between personality and birth order happens only within the family environment and disappears when adult children leave the family home.

There have been other interesting research findings about birth order; there are strong links between birth order and family size on IQ scores, with first-born children scoring higher on intelligence tests than later children – and “only” children doing best of all. There’s also one finding called the “fraternal birth order effect,” where men with several older brothers more likely to be homosexual; each older brother increases a man’s odds of being gay by around a third.

Different family structures, like stepfamilies and big age gaps between children, add another level of complexity and as yet, there’s not much research into that side of things. Birth order does appear to change the way that most parents treat their children – and this is likely to have a significant impact on personality development. Parenting educator and author Michael Grose has written a whole book exploring birth order – called “Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It”, which has lots of great tips for parenting your children according to their birth-order position in the family.

He analyses the work of Professor Frank Sulloway of the University of California, an evolutionary psychologist researching birth order for more than a quarter of a century. Sulloway argues that birth order places each child in a different “niche” within the family unit – and that siblings will develop fundamentally different personalities because they have to use different strategies to get their parent’s attention (and favour!) He thinks that the powerful interpersonal dynamics within families have produced a mix of personalities that has driven revolutionary advances throughout human history.

First-Born Children

According to birth order theory, the firstborn child is likely to be more conservative, keen to please parents and often “the boss” of the other kids. Most astronauts and US Presidents were first-borns, and they are thought to be natural leaders.

First-born children were centre of attention until they had to share their parents with the next-born child. Birth-order theory suggests that being “dethroned” from centre stage is traumatic for first-borns, shaping their outlook on life.

Some first-borns spend the rest of their lives striving to regain their parent’s attention and approval, leading to a relentless need to achieve. They might resent second-born and subsequent siblings. Some researchers think the first-born child is more likely to show greater hostility to their siblings compared to other children.

While first-borns are often more achievement-oriented, assertive, extroverted, organised and responsible, they can also be more jealous, stressed and neurotic than their later-born siblings.

Birth order theory says that novice parents often create an early atmosphere of greater parental anxiety for their first child compared to their later-borns.

New parents can channel their ambitions most strongly into first children, becoming gradually more relaxed about aspirations for their children as later born children arrive. Perhaps this is why ambitious achievers are more likely to be first-borns.

Tips for Parenting First-Borns:

  • Relax a bit – try not to put too much pressure on them to perform and do well because they often put a lot of pressure on themselves
  • Get them to start helping early, but do save some responsibilities for the others in the family, don’t put them all onto the first-born
  • Keep a few privileges for first-borns to balance out the responsibilities you give them – eg you might let them stay up a little bit later at night
  • Encourage first-borns to help with younger children so that they can maintain their “superior” status by being an advisor to the littlies, rather than the police

The Middle Child

You’ve probably heard of “middle child syndrome;” it’s not a real disorder, just a pop-culture term that suggests that the middle child has a chip on their shoulder. However, birth order theory suggest that the middle child is the one who is best prepared for life outside the family – and is actually the child who gets the easiest run in a family.

Some researchers suggest that middle children can feel overlooked and forgotten by parents more interested in the trophy first born and the indulged baby and they sometimes cop the full-brunt of a first-born’s competitiveness and resentment.

Middle children start off as the youngest, but when a younger sibling arrives, they lose that status (and attention). Some middles feel this is worse than the first-born’s loss of attention because they aren’t compensated with “top dog” status. But parents are often more relaxed and less demanding with second and subsequent children, meaning that many middle children are more easy-going than their older siblings. The anxiety surrounding the first child has dissipated and middle children are given a freer hand.

Because they have to learn to get on with older and younger children, they often become good negotiators. Middle children are more likely to make friends easily because they have learned to be diplomatic, assertive, flexible and empathetic to fit in better with their siblings. They also tend to handle disappointment better than their siblings.

A critical factor for middle children can be their relationship with the first child, which determines whether they imitate or rebel against their older sibling.

The relationship changes, too, when children have different genders – this can make life a little easier for the middle child. And if an older child has a disability, the middle child will often “step up” and exhibit more first-born tendencies. Often the middle child will choose interests and behaviours that are different to their older sibling. If the first-born excels at sport – the middle child may be an academic high-achiever. A serious, goal-oriented first-born often leads to a nonchalant, free-spirited middle child.

The middle child often looks outside the family for meaning. Their parental ties are not always as strong as those of their siblings, but their social skills mean that they are rarely lonely and they usually manage good friendships.

Tips for Parenting The Middle Child:

  • Never compare a second or middle child to a sibling. Help them to find their own strengths.
  • Make sure you have photos of your middle child by themselves, not always with their siblings
  • Find opportunities for one-on-one time. When they are older, take them alone down to the shops with you – or for a younger child, read them a story, just for them
  • Don’t let your middle child get lost in the crowd – make sure they get a new outfit or toy occasionally that’s not a hand-me-down
  • Encourage a special interest in your middle child that the others don’t share – a sport or perhaps music

The Youngest Child

The youngest child is often the rebel, the one who wants to change the world; youngest children are more likely to break away from their family traditions, sometimes “settling down” later in their life than other family members or exhibiting disdain for authority figures.

The typical youngest child is a persistent and outgoing charmer and often the family clown. Being the youngest in the family forever (unlike middle children) means the last-born is at times over-indulged by the rest of the family.

Youngest children experience far fewer rules and boundaries than the first-born did. As a result, they may have more difficulty with self-control. (This birth position is more frequently found among alcoholics.)

The last-born is also likely to be an attention seeker, as they have to compete with more siblings. They also often have a rebellious streak – perhaps from always being bossed by older siblings.

Youngest children frequently avoid making decisions and duck responsibilities.

Tips for Parenting The Youngest Child:

  • Teach them to stand up for themselves when older siblings boss them around
  • Encourage them to speak for themselves instead of letting older siblings tell stories for them or introduce them to strangers
  • Put some pressure on them and give them some responsibility – make sure you raise your expectations
  • Resist the temptation to keep them as the baby – let them grow up
  • Maintain your parenting energy for the youngest – make sure you go to all their school things, even though you’ve seen it all before
  • Keep questioning them about their school and activities – don’t let them slide under the radar

The Only Child

Currently, one in five children is an only child – and that number is likely to increase.

The only child is often like a “super firstborn,” although sometimes they will take on the birth-order attributes of their same-gender parent.

There are two main types of only child, the very confident, assertive “mini-adults” and those who have great difficulty with other children, never having learned to stick up for themselves.

Growing up largely with their parents, rather than less trustworthy siblings, only children can sometimes be too trusting in their relationships with other children and are more likely to be bullied.

Only children usually grow up fast, identifying strongly with their parents outlook on life. Never having to compete with other kids for their parents? attention, they can be very self-sufficient, but sometimes aloof.

They are often demanding perfectionists who have high expectations of themselves – and for themselves, the only child is very used to life running smoothly, never having to negotiate with other kids for control of the toybox, the TV or the bathroom – which can make them difficult housemates when they leave home.

Tips for Parenting The Only Child:

  • Encourage them to be kids – only children can have difficulty being childlike
  • Give praise before negative feedback, as criticism really stings them
  • Make a conscious effort not to over-indulge your child – let them wait for special treats and toys
  • Give them plenty of opportunities to mix with other kids – neighbours, cousins – particularly those with siblings
  • Give them a pet or other opportunity to look after someone other than themselves

This article has been provided by Penni Drysdale; a freelance writer and mother of one child.

Reference: “Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It” by Michael Grose. Published by Random House

16/09/21 - min Read

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