P Files 05-Jul-2012
Firstborns want to rule the world, lastborns want to change it and middle children are the peacemakers.
Firstborns are over-achievers, lastborns are the class clowns and middle children are the lost souls.
Much is expected of the firstborn, middle children are overlooked, and the baby is a spoilt brat.
How many of these generalisations have you heard? Do they sum up the family you came from? Can you see these characteristics emerging with your own children?
The theory is: our birth order impacts, some say defines, the kind of person we become. Advocate, William Cane, author of The Birth Order Book of Love, believes it’s not just our personalities, but that our careers and romantic relationships are also determined by the order in which we happened to emerge from our mother’s womb.
Psychologist, Dr Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book believes that character traits of firstborns, middle children and lastborns are evidenced across families, proving a child’s position in the family is the determining factor of those traits.
Such definitive claims could give parents little reason to think that parenting matters.
But it’s not our birth order, per se, that has such power over who we become; it is more that we parent each child differently, according to their birth order. For instance research shows that youngest children are immunised up to half the rate of firstborns.
It’s also true that growing up in the same family can be a different experience depending on whether you have younger siblings, older siblings, or both. Again, parental expectations are different for each child, depending on their age and rank in the family.
But is the power of birth order scientific theory, or pop-psychology?
Stereotypes, or Science?
Dr Alfred Adler, founder of individual psychology in the 1920s was the first psychologist to study birth order and its impact on personality development.
Adler looked at the five personality traits of extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, and argued that it is a child’s birth rank that determines their personality as defined by these five categories.
There have been hundreds of research studies since. Even this year, a study at Adelphi University found that “firstborns are typically smarter, but younger siblings get better grades and are more outgoing”. Another recent business study found that firstborns are more responsible with money, middle children are the best savers and lastborns are the most financially irresponsible.
Yet for every new study there are those who call the theory bunkum. Like psychologist Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption. Harris says it is “bad science,” no more than “subjective impressions based on personal experiences, flawed or misleading research, the tendency for research to be published and publicised only if it supports the belief in birth order, the impressions psychotherapists get from listening to their patients, and biological factors”.
But what are we to make of anecdotal evidence?
The President Factor
It has long been established that most US Presidents and Nobel Prize winners are firstborns. A high proportion of successful entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates and Donald Trump, are middle children. And as far as creative types and comedians go, the Hall of Fame is lined with babies of the family.
So if the common denominator to career choice is birth order and the key to birth order is parenting, then perhaps parenting is more important than we think?
The Parenting factor
We might not like to admit it, but research shows we don’t parent fairly--it’s the rare family where you’ll find an equal number of photos of all the children.
Parents may not mean to divide their attention unevenly, but unless the age gaps are large enough that the firstborn is at school by the time the second child arrives, middle children don’t naturally get the exclusive attention firstborns receive as the only child, or lastborns receive once everyone else has grown up. And if the age gaps are close, the oldest child can articulate their needs and the baby will make themselves heard; it’s often middle children who are easily overlooked.
It’s also true that sometimes parents simply run out of steam, or relax their expectations over the years, feeding the accusation by older children that the baby of the family gets away with anything.
Then there’s ‘Position Empathy’. Leman says parents identify most closely with the child who shares the same position in the family as them, and try to minimise what they felt to be injustices of the rank. And if both parents share the same rank, the child might be buffeted from the perceived downsides of their position, as both seek to compensate the child.
But it’s important to remember there are strengths and weaknesses to every position in the family.
First Born Benefits
Firstborns might complain of being lumped with greater responsibility and expectations than their siblings and of being the guinea pig on whom all the parenting mistakes are made. But there are statistics to back up the claim that firstborns have the edge. Dr Leman’s book, The Firstborn Advantage, details the firstborn’s privileges over their siblings.
The advantage stems from undivided parental attention. Even the smallest achievement is praised for the firstborn, leading to greater self-confidence. This leads them to perform well academically, which leads to higher education and higher-paying jobs than younger siblings. Firstborns are often CEOs of companies, exercising leadership and responsibility skills honed in childhood.
The flipside is, having parents teach them how to do everything, firstborns tend to approach things conservatively even into adulthood, as they think there is a particular way that things should be done. Firstborns are often perfectionists and perfectionism is the known enemy of creativity.
While firstborns are generally high-achievers, the danger is they can link their feelings of worth directly to their performance.
The oldest often takes on a mentoring role, reinforcing what they know by teaching their younger siblings, which reinforces the “bossy” label younger children tend to stick on the eldest child.
Middle Child Syndrome
Have you noticed that characteristics of first and lastborns are labelled ‘traits’ but those of the middle child are labelled a ‘syndrome,’ on par with a psychological disorder? Surely that alone could cause the most robust middle child to develop the ‘inferiority complex’ our friend Adler coined!
Although, Adler lauds middle children as having the best chance of growing up into successful, well-adjusted adults because they experience neither the dethronement of the eldest child nor the overindulgence of the baby. (Perhaps now is the time to mention Adler was himself a middle child – who clearly didn’t have an inferiority complex).
Yet the ‘syndrome’ view of the middle child persists, and is propagated by middle children themselves. There are websites dedicated to ‘Middle Child Syndrome’ where fellow sufferers can share their laments of being “ignored/overlooked/hard done by”. And judging by these testimonies, being in the middle of large families, an odd number of children, or of same-sex siblings, heightens the feelings of exclusion. Feelings which could contribute to the ‘lost soul’ label attached to middle children.
According to Cane, middle children can be confused about their identity, taking longer to find their niche talents and skills. This can delay parental praise which is directed at the siblings who already excel in some area, causing the middle child to feel ignored.
But the social skills of middle children are well-developed above their siblings’. Dr Leman says this is because years of mediating make them excellent diplomats and helps them relate to a wider set of personality types.
While it takes longer for a middle child to work out their identity, one thing you can be sure of: they will be the opposite of the firstborn. According to Leman, differentiating themselves from their older sibling is the first step in middle children defining who they are.
The Baby’s Charms
Out-sized and out-smarted by their older siblings, the only option available to the youngest child is to outwit. Babies of the family often have a flamboyant humour which they use to disarm and charm their older siblings. But when the same charm is used on the parents, older siblings cry foul, labelling the baby of the family the ‘spoilt brat’.
Most parents are more relaxed in their role by the time the last baby arrives. This makes for a more relaxed baby and an easy going temperament. And because they turn up after the party is well underway, babies of the family are the most observant of the children and learn to easily read people and situations, often with a comic twist.
The ‘wild child’ tag of the youngest is due to their spirited nature. They question authority and are resourceful because they’ve seen there are many ways to approach a problem. But what youngest children call laidback, older siblings call irresponsible.
Exceptions & Exemptions
According to Cane, an only child can show attributes of both the firstborn and the baby, as they are functionally both. Twins assume the same position in the family as they are treated the same and turn out similarly. Large age-gaps of seven years or more means the youngest child is effectively an only child, and adopted children display traits according to their order within their adoptive family.
It is harder to place the birth order characteristics of children from blended families, as it depends on whether they have step or half-siblings and how much of the time they live together.
Gender also plays a role in birth order effects. For instance, middle children with same sex siblings show more traits, whereas being the middle child of opposite sex siblings can reverse the feelings of being overlooked.
Harnessing for Good
Whether the Birth Order theory is an inexact science, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, Dr Leman says parents can learn to channel the particular birth order traits of each child for good. Instead of calling the firstborn bossy, see it as leadership training. Rather than stepping in to resolve a squabble, allow the middle child to negotiate. Don’t see the lastborn’s play as just mess, but an opportunity to encourage their creativity.
Cane also encourages parents to focus on building up children’s weaker skills. Instead of telling the firstborn how something is done, give them time to be innovative so they learn to look at problems creatively. Create opportunities for middle children to be the decision maker, so they learn to be pro-active. If the youngest child loves to perform, instil inner discipline through chores and practise to help with their creative endeavours.
In the end, it is good that our children have different strengths and weaknesses. We just need to praise their strengths and encourage them in their weaknesses, remembering that children live up to the reputation we give them, whatever it may be.