Does Birth Order Matter?
While brain science’s capacity to literally ‘look into the human mind’ with imaging technology tells us a great deal about how the brain changes over time, it cannot define the countless things impacting that growth. One big idea that emerged in the 1920s and has gained a lot of ground over the past 15 years is birth order theory – the concept that our child’s position in the family (firstborn, middle child, lastborn) greatly shapes not only who they are, but what they will become.
Does the timing of a child’s birth really determine the nature of not only their relationships with their parents and siblings, but all future adult relationships as well? Is our only-child destined to be self-centred and antisocial while the youngest of many is born to rebel? Perhaps more importantly what, if anything, can parents do about it?
What we know about the human personality is that fully half of what determines who we are – whether we are outgoing, imaginative, orderly, cooperative, sensitive, etc., – originates in our gene pool. This comes as no surprise to parents who have gazed lovingly into the eyes of their newborn and seen an individual looking right back at them. The discussion gets interesting when we examine where the other half of who we are might come from.
As parents we tend to take most of the blame (and credit) for our child’s behaviour, whether on the playground, at birthday parties, in school or at home. We endeavour to model and mold in ways that will ensure our little one’s success as they mature.
Often we perceive that honing our parenting skills is the single most important factor in changing our child’s approach to life’s various scenarios. Birth order theory suggests there are other powers at work when it comes to forming our child’s perspective on the world at large.
Take a moment to imagine yourself the way your child may sometimes see you: not only as the loving nurturer, but also as the provider of all manner of material goods. Among other things, you make the decisions about matters of basic survival like what to eat for dinner (food), what neighbourhood you live in (shelter) and what your children wear to school (clothing). Unlike other mammals, human children remain largely dependent on their parents for many years.
Like most other species, however, we naturally compete for limited resources – whether basic necessities or attention – in order to not only survive, but thrive. Birth order theory suggests that because every family’s resources are naturally limited – parents only have so much time, money and attention to give – sibling rivalry is, to some extent, an inevitable end result.
On its own, sibling rivalry does not change personality. What makes the big difference are the strategies children cultivate in order to be successful relative to others in their family. Children’s differences in age (oldest/youngest), physical size (biggest/fastest) and status (first/smartest/most talented) mean they experience all their family relationships differently.
This difference leads them to find various ways to maximize their parents’ investment in their well-being: adult privileges for the oldest; second helpings for the biggest; extra care for the youngest; special lessons for the most talented; etc.
Similar to a market-driven economy, children seek their own particular niche within the family unit – they adopt behaviours and form alliances which best serve their interests or meet their needs – while distinguishing themselves from their brothers/sisters. However, though birth order does have an impact, it doesn’t define the whole child, so it’s worthwhile not stereotyping based on whether your child is born first, last or in-between.
Beyond the pigeonhole
In the same way that all tuna is fish, but not all fish is tuna, a large percentage of political leaders are firstborns, but not all firstborns will become Prime Minister. In other words, birth order governs tendencies, but doesn’t predetermine our child’s every move. The broad strokes of birth order theory paint the following picture:
Because firstborns usually identify closest with their parents, they tend to be more conscientious – responsible, respectful of authority, ambitious, organized, academic – and somewhat conservative. Children born later down the line become more agreeable – accommodating, unselfish – and also more unconventional, willing to experiment and tolerate a certain amount of risk to find creative ways of getting what they need.
While firstborns may be more assertive (read: bossy?), laterborns tend to be more fun-loving and sociable, and lastborns may use their natural charm to shirk their responsibilities, preferring to remain the baby of the family, or trade on their cuteness rather than their smarts. Lastborns are typically the attention-seeking entertainers and comedians, or else the change agents in the world, rebelling against the status quo.
Even when parents treat all of their offspring equally, middle children (anyone born between the oldest and the youngest) still receive fewer resources than the first or last child. That’s because firstborns and lastborns generally experience some period as only children, whereas middle children will always have to share their parents with at least one other sibling.
This can make a middleborn much more realistic in their expectations of others – they can be very diplomatic, compromising, and acutely aware of the importance of being liked, while also being good at keeping secrets. The downside of being in the middle is feeling crowded by siblings on both sides, disliking confrontation sufficiently not to share feelings or develop strong opinions, and being willing to make peace at any price.
Making a difference
Lest you begin to wonder why you ever considered having more than one child, be assured that all this inter-family competition has its upside. Not only do younger children gain important social skills from their older siblings through modeling, the closeness of the family unit itself can provide a safe haven where younger ones are more willing to both badger and challenge their older siblings in ways that help them learn. The first born child benefits from this interaction because teaching their younger sister or brother – language, counting, cooking – has been proven to make them smarter. Encouraging those interactions has a positive effect on everyone.
As a parent in a household of more than one child, it’s worthwhile considering that once survival is assured, the most valuable resource we have to offer is our attention. It is with the power of our focus – while sharing books, playing a game, or engaging in bedtime chat – that we can help even the playing field on which our little ones develop.
Being a Positive Influence
While each one of your children navigates through their relationships in their own unique way, reflect on the positive influence you could have in the following ways:
For Firstborns (and Only Children)
- Rather than reinforcing the perfectionist, encourage experimentation and even (gasp!) mistakes
- Set up playdates with older kids so she’s isn’t always the one in charge
- Appreciate that he is responsible, but don’t always look to him to take responsibility if other children can share the load
- Remember that she’s a child, no matter how precocious; if you need adult conversation, find a friend your own age
For Middle Children
- Acknowledge his accomplishments before he asks and point out his unique characteristics, like his sense of humour
- Take photos of her alone so she isn’t always comparing herself to others
- Encourage him to have his own thoughts, opinions and ideas, rather than always playing the peacekeeper
- Allow her the occasional new item of clothing or toy that she chooses herself to help her develop a sense of what she likes
For the Youngest
- Give him a fair share of household duties – he may be the youngest but he’s no longer a baby once he’s out of diapers
- Acknowledge her hard work, creativity and thoughtfulness – not just her cuteness – so she knows you take her seriously
- Resist comparing him to his older siblings; encourage him to develop his own unique characteristics, no matter how long it takes
- Support her interests and help her narrow down what she does well
For All Your Children
- Offer one-on-one time to everyone – there’s no substitute for your undivided attention once in a while
- Encourage turn-taking in even the most ordinary situations – riding shotgun in Dad’s car or having first pick of the week’s breakfast cereal can mean a lot
- While it is natural to identify more with one child’s personality than another, always remind yourself and your children of your infinite capacity to love them all