Does Birth Order Matter?
Whether they're first born, in the middle, the youngest, or the one and only, children all have personality characteristics associated with their birth order.
Have you ever considered how the order in which you were born—first (or only), in the middle, or last—has impacted your life? As a parent, it is more likely than not that you have been cautioned about neglecting your second or later-born children when it comes to inclusion in the family photo album, or warned about spoiling the youngest. Beyond the stereotypes, there is a body of research dating back to one of the fathers of psychology, Alfred Adler, that clearly shows how birth order helps shape who you are and how you approach the world, relationships, and parenting.
Rest assured that birth order does not mean destiny, and our children are not all preordained to become the firstborn perfectionist or ultimate perfectionist only child, the middle child seeking to define and prove herself, or the spoiled class clown as the baby of the family.
While disbelievers often toss birth order into the same category as astrology and palm reading, when you take a closer look at birth order as an important determinant of who we are and who we become, it makes good sense. Chances are you wouldn’t disagree if someone told you that first-time parents of an only child often have grand expectations and tend to focus a great deal of attention on that child, or that by the time parents have their last child, they pay just a little more attention to that baby, savoring the passing of each milestone and even relaxing the discipline a bit. It is just such common sense scenarios that illustrate the basis for birth order determination.
The Firstborn Child
While only some of you played the role of firstborn, all of you, as parents, have experienced the arrival of your firstborn child. From either vantage point, it will likely make sense that this position of distinction in any family has benefits and challenges. After all, being the sole recipient of a parent’s undivided attention and devotion can make a child feel particularly special. At the same time, this attention can also come in the form of closer scrutiny and higher expectations, including setting a good example for younger siblings. For these reasons, firstborn children are typically perfectionists—not only from a lifetime of trying to meet expectations but also from having only adult role models during their childhoods.
Firstborns tend to grow up to be mature, organized, and responsible adults, many of whom end up in leadership roles, but who also run the risk of being controlling, strict, and overly hard on themselves (and others).
All that said, if you happen to be looking at your firstborn infant and wondering what all this means for his future, take heart in knowing that you can, in fact, raise a well-adjusted child—even if he was born first! Remember to routinely examine your expectations and don’t always look for perfection—a recommendation that will serve parents well in their approach to all children, but firstborns in particular.
The Only Child
Only children are thought to have personality traits similar to firstborns only much more intense, so expect the firstborn personality traits to be slightly magnified in only children.
Instead of having to adjust to a sibling being introduced into the family, only children get to be the center of their parents’ attention for a lifetime. And while a parent’s attention can be a wonderful thing, only children are often referred to as lonely-onlies, because without the presence of a sibling and some of the attention off them, they have a tendency to become more self-centered and directed. To offset this they need to exercise their social skills with a strong network of friends and family—particularly children of different ages. Parental awareness and participation are key to raising an only child with all the advantages a child with siblings has.
The Middle Child
A child born second (or third or fourth or fifth) is put in a very different position than the firstborn, if for no other reason than his parents have had a child his age before and are more experienced in the fine art of parenting. Parental attention now needs to be divided, and there is an older sibling’s standard for the younger child to live up to, so it becomes clear why middle children are raised in a different environment.
To make the concept more concrete for parents of more than one child, consider whether you’ve ever learned from mistakes you made the first time around and changed your approach to such basic parenting tasks as sleeping, feeding, tantrums, or toilet training. For those of you who are middle children, try to recall if you were compared to your older sibling in school, in your athletic abilities, or in any other way. When it comes to middle children, personality characteristics seem to be less easily defined, but one thing is clear—middle children tend to move in a direction that is different from their older sibling(s) and often look outside their family to find a group (often of peers) in which they can feel special.
As you raise your own middle children, it will help to remind yourself every now and then that first and last are not the only positions of importance in the family. Try not to use your older child to set the standards of comparison for your younger children, and try to rise to meet the challenge of stocking the family photo album with as many photos of your middle children as you did with your first!
The Last-Born Child
Who among us hasn’t accused a younger sibling (or been accused as the youngest in the family) of getting away with murder? And as a parent, who hasn’t felt like a Calgon commercial and sacrificed discipline for a little peace and quiet (in other words, becoming lax on the rules when enforcing them becomes too much effort)? Well, there you have it—it’s not so hard to see why last-borns, commonly referred to as the babies of the family, are less bound by rules and regulations, turn out to be a little less responsible, and are seen as spoiled.
While being last-born may seem like a carefree position to hold, consider that this child has to compete more than any of the others for attention, has much less need (and therefore, ability) to be self-sufficient, and receives far less notice for accomplishments than when those feats were mastered by siblings. The result—a child who thrives on any praise tossed his way, and one who is likely to do anything to get attention.
Once again, before you start to fret that you are doomed to raise an irresponsible class clown, think about what you can do to change these natural tendencies. Take your youngest seriously, don’t let yourself trivialize his accomplishments just because you’ve been through them before with your older children, and make sure that you still set some expectations for your youngest to live up to so that he won’t fall short in learning to be responsible.
Having laid out the classic characteristics and tendencies of children born in each birth order position, there are several caveats and exceptions to consider: First of all, gender plays a role. If a firstborn child is a girl and the next is a boy, the scenario that plays out may be more like two firstborn children than that of a first and middle child. The same often holds true if more than a few years separate the birth of two children. Add into the discussion twins, step-siblings, or adopted children, and the possibilities become more complex.
Lastly, and most importantly—it is worth repeating that the order in which a child is born into a family does not have to define a set course in life from which he cannot deviate. By simply understanding the common roles and conditions that typically come into play when a child is born first, middle, or last, you will not only be able to make a conscious effort to raise your own children to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted, but perhaps you will even gain some insight into why you are the way you are as well.
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