The correlation between birth order and personality has intrigued many. Are first-born selfish overachievers? Are all middle children destined to be feel ignored? Do last-born really turn out to be “the favorites” of the parents? These and many other questions have and are still being explored by psychologists.
Research on birth order, sometimes referred to as ordinal position, shows that where a child places in the birth order can have an effect on how he or she sees themselves. Some researchers say birth order differences are as strong as gender difference.
Research has shown that birth order does indeed affect a child; however, it does not automatically shape personality. If it did, life would be much more predictable. Birth order doesn’t explain everything about human behavior. Personality is affected by many different factors, such as heredity, family size, the spacing and sex of siblings, education, and upbringing. However, there is a great deal of research supporting the affect of birth order on personality.
There are four basic classifications of birth order: the oldest, the only, the middle, and the youngest. Each has its own set of advantages, as well as its own set of disadvantages. While the birth order factor isn’t always exact, it does give many clues about why people are the way they are.
The following characteristics will not apply to all children in every family. Typical characteristics, however, can be identified:
Middle Child of Three
Pampered and spoiled.
Feels incompetent because adults are more capable.
Is center of attention;
often enjoys position. May feel special.
Relies on service from others rather than own efforts.
Feels unfairly treated when doesn’t get own way. May refuse to cooperate.
Plays “divide and conquer” to get own way.
May have poor peer relations as child but better relations as adult.
Pleases other only when wants to.
May have striving characteristics of oldest and inadequacy feelings and demands of youngest.
Is only child for period of time; used to being center of attention.
Believes must gain and hold superiority over other children.
Being right, controlling often important.
May respond to birth of second child by feeling unloved and neglected.
keep or regain parents’ attention through conformity.
If this failed, chooses to misbehave.
May develop competent, responsible behavior or become very discouraged.
Sometime strives to protect and help others.
Strives to please.
Never has parents’ undivided attention.
Always has sibling ahead who’s more advanced.
Acts as if in race, trying to catch up or overtake first child. If first child is “good,” second may become “bad.” Develops abilities first child doesn’t exhibit. If first child successful, may feel uncertain of self and abilities.
May be rebel. Often doesn’t like position.
Feels “squeezed” if third child is born. May push down other siblings.
Has neither rights of oldest nor privileges of youngest. Feels life is unfair.
Feels unloved, left out, “squeezed.”
Feels doesn’t have place in family.
Becomes discouraged and “problem child” or elevates self by pushing down other siblings.
Is adaptable. Learns to deal with both oldest and youngest sibling.
Behaves like only child. Feels every one bigger and more capable.
Expects others to do things, make decisions, take responsibility.
Feels smallest and weakest. May not be taken seriously.
Becomes boss of family in getting service and own way.
Develops feelings of inferiority or becomes “speeder” and overtakes older siblings.
Remains “The Baby.” Places others in service.
If youngest of three, often allies with oldest child against middle child.
NOTES: 1. The middle child of three is usually different from the middle child of a large family. The middle children of large families are often less competitive as parents don’t have as much time to give each child and so the children learn to cooperate to get what they want. 2. Only children usually want to be adults, and so don’t relate to peers very well. When they become adults, they often believe they’ve finally “made it” and can now relate better to adults as peers. 3. During their formative years, only children live primarily in the world of adults. They must learn how to operate in the big people’s world as well as how to entertain themselves. Thus they often become very creative in their endeavors.
The renowned psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Adler wrote that a person’s position in the family leaves an undeniable “stamp” on his or her “style of life”.
In this box, developed by Henry T. Stein, Ph.D. we look at a broad simplification of Adler’s theory on birth order.
Birth is a miracle. Parents have no previous experience. Retains 200% attention from both parents. May become rival of one parent. Can be over-protected and spoiled.
Likes being the center of adult attention. Often has difficulty sharing with siblings and peers. Prefers adult company and uses adult language.
Dethroned by next child. Has to learn to share. Parent expectations are usually very high. Often given responsibility and expected to set an example.
May become authoritarian or strict. Feels power is his right. Can become helpful if encouraged. May turn to father after birth of next child.
He has a pace setter. There is always someone ahead.
Is more competitive, wants to overtake older child. May become a rebel or try to outdo everyone. Competition can deteriorate into rivalry.
Is “sandwiched” in. May feel squeezed out of a position of privilege and significance.
May be even-tempered, “take it or leave it” attitude. May have trouble finding a place or become a fighter of injustice.
Has many mothers and fathers. Older children try to educate him. Never dethroned.
Wants to be bigger than the others. May have huge plans that never work out. Can stay the “baby.” Frequently spoiled.
One is usually stronger or more active. Parents may see one as the older.
Can have identity problems. Stronger one may become the leader.
Child born after the death of the first child may have a “ghost” in front of him. Mother may become over-protective.
Child may exploit mother’s over-concern for his well-being, or he may rebel, and protest the feeling of being compared to an idealized memory.
Parents may be so thankful to have a child that they spoil him. They may try to compensate for the loss of his biological parents.
Child may become very spoiled and demanding. Eventually, he may resent or idealize the biological parents.
ONLY BOY AMONG GIRLS
Usually with women all the time, if father is away.
May try to prove he is the man in the family, or become effeminate.
ONLY GIRL AMONG BOYS
Older brothers may act as her protectors.
Can become very feminine, or a tomboy and outdo the brothers. May try to please the father.
If mother wanted a girl, can be dressed as a girl.
Child may capitalize on assigned role or protest it vigorously.
May be dressed as a boy.
Child may capitalize on assigned role or protest it vigorously.
Although the view that birth order is the sole predictor of development across the lifespan has never been widely accepted, an individual’s birth order is a possible influence on relationships with parents and siblings, which may affect personality formation and social behavior across the lifespan.
THE FIRST- BORN
Stereotypically, first-born are said to be “perfectionists”. First-born children tend to be high achievers in whatever they do. Some traits customarily used to label first born children include reliable, conscientious, list maker, well organized, critical, serious, scholarly, self-assured, good leadership ability, eager to please, and nurturing.
Also, first-born children seem to have a heightened sense of right and wrong. It is common in most books about birth order that first-born children get more press than only, middle, and youngest children. This can be explained by the fact that the first-born child is typically the success story in the family. They are the ones that are extremely driven to succeed in “high achievement” fields such as science, medicine, or law. For example, of the first twenty-three astronauts sent into outer space, twenty-one were first-born. In fact, all seven astronauts in the original Mercury program were first-born children. Also, first-born children tend to choose careers that involve leadership. For example, more than half of all U.S. presidents were first-borns.
Researchers say that, in general, first-born children tend to have higher IQs than younger siblings. This isn’t because they start off more intelligent, but because of the amount of attention new parents give to their first child. The amount and type of nurturing that any child receives at a young age is critical. Naturally, first-time parents will spend a great deal more time with their child, as opposed to veteran parents. Experts claim that a first-born’s will to succeed begins in infancy. The extraordinary love and affection that many new parents have with their first child leads to the kind of intensity that can probably never be repeated with a younger child. In the first few weeks, a new parent imitates the baby’s gestures in a playful game. A rhythm is established with smiles, noises, and gestures that often mimic the baby. This cycle of action-reaction might make and infant feel powerful and loved. A couple of weeks of game playing and the infant develops a sense of recognition. This special parent-child interaction helps to instill a deep sense of self-worth in first-born children. In short, the parents put their first-born child on a pedestal or throne. Also, new parents are convinced that their child is the cleverest child in the world when he or she rolls over for the first time or says “Mama” or “Dada”. Even though the child is a baby it can still sense the profound sense of enthusiasm that the parents feel for him/her. So, first-born want to maintain their parents’ attention and approval. This is when the arrival of a second child is often a crisis for the first child. The baby knocks them off their pedestal. They are no longer the center of mom and dad’s attention. This often, but not always, causes them to become resentful toward their younger sibling. To reclaim the position at the center of their parents’ attention, he or she will try imitating the baby. When the first child realizes that his or her parents frown upon a two-year-old who wants a bottle or a three-year-old who needs a diaper, he or she decides to aid his or her parents in caring for the younger child. Parents usually tend to reinforce the older child’s decision to be more adult by expecting him or her to set a good example for the younger child.
These experiences help to make the first-born a natural leader. However, first-born are sometimes so preoccupied with being good and doing things right that they have a tendency to forget how to enjoy life and be a kid. Along with being the first child comes pressure. Each achievement becomes a miracle in a new parent’s eyes. However, when a mistake occurs it is viewed as an enormous failure in the child’s eyes because their parents weren’t ecstatic, and so the child goes to enormous lengths to make his or her parents happy with their performance. Some parents may also burden the child with their own unfulfilled dreams and with setting the standard for the younger children. First-born often suffer from seudomaturity. They may act grown-up throughout childhood, but because their role models are grown-ups rather than older siblings, they may tend to reject the role of leader in early adulthood. Also, a firstborn does not always graciously receive criticism. An adult’s constant criticism of his or her performance may cause the child to become a worried perfectionist. They may come to fear making mistakes before eyes that he or she feels are always watching them. First-born children may also come to hate any kind of criticism because it emphasizes the faults that he or she is trying to overcome. The first-born child does not have unlimited time to view himself as the child in the relationship with parents. When a sibling arrives, he or she tends to eliminate the view of himself or herself as a child and he or she struggles to be “parental”. In short, the first-born child will do anything to make everything perfect.
In addition to the labels mentioned before, first born children also tend to be goal-oriented, self-sacrificing, people-pleasers, conservative, supporters of law and order, believer in authority and ritual, legalistic, loyal, and self-reliant. They are often achievers, the ones who are driven toward success and stardom in their given fields.
First-born children can be found in positions like accountants, bookkeepers, executive secretaries, engineers, and people whose jobs involve computers. First-borns typically choose a career that involves precision and requires a strong power of concentration.
Albert Einstein and Sally Ride were both first-borns.
In many ways, the only child is like the first-born child. Single children are often treated like little adults. An only child is a first-born child who never loses his or her parents’ undivided attention. He or she benefits greatly from his or her parents’ enthusiastic attention, as long as it isn’t too critical.
The only child also tends to have the first child’s heightened sense of right and wrong. Where the first-born child is organized, the only child is super-organized. Where the first-born child is a perfectionist, the only child is a super-perfectionist.
Labels that are often applied to only children include spoiled, selfish, lazy, and a bit conceited. These labels tend to be applied because only children don’t have to share with other siblings like the first, middle, or youngest children. Dr. Alfred Adler, a famous psychologist, said that “The Only Child has difficulties with every independent activity and sooner or later they become useless in life.” However, most birth order experts disagree with Dr. Adler and the labels given to an only child. Far from being people who are used to having things handed to them all their lives, only children are among the top achievers in every area of profession.
A problem that only children tend to have is eager parents who interfere with their child’s development. For example, new parents tend to jump in too early to help the child with everything he or she tries. They can’t sit back and let the child struggle. What they don’t realize is that frustration is a powerful learning tool. When a child fights to master a task and succeeds on his or her own, they become proud. If a parent tends to jump in to help at every little problem, then the child could lose his or her will to try to do things by their self.
Children seem to be very on top of things, articulate, and mature. They appear to have it all together. Yet, often there is an internal struggle going on. Their standards have always been set by adults and are often high, sometimes too high. Only children regularly have a hard time enjoying their achievements. They feel as if they can never do anything good enough. Even if they succeed, they often feel as though they didn’t succeed by enough. This is usually the start of what experts call the “discouraged perfectionist”. Also, many other special problems may develop with only children. These problems are often classified as only children, who are “problem children.” For example, the “receiver” child often has a problem with the heliocentric theory that states that our solar system revolves around the sun. The receiver child believes that the entire universe revolves around him or her. This type of child generally develops when the parents give in to their child’s every wish. It is important for this child’s parents to say “No.” and not always give in. Once these children realize that they are dealing with someone who won’t cave in to their every demand they become better socialized. Another “problem child” is the “friend-snatcher”. The child, who never learns to share his or her toys, will also have a problem with sharing friends, as well. They become agitated when their friend tries to include other people into the pair’s activities. They may try to bribe their “friend” by offering them toys, food, and maybe even money. For this problem, experts suggest confronting the child by proposing, that maybe, the reason he or she is not having very good relationships with his or her friends is because he or she is not willing to share friends with anyone. Suggest that they need to try doing activities with more than two people and that they need to stop being so possessive.
Next is the “target” child. This child also has a problem with the heliocentric theory. This child magnifies his or her importance in every situation and believes he or she is the one being singled out for unfair treatment. When life is unfair, as it often is, he can sink into deep depression and bitterness. For example, if a teacher gives them an “F” on a math test, it’s because the teacher doesn’t like them and not because they didn’t do a good job. These are often problems of an only child who has been sheltered from society by their overprotective parents. Those who are well adjusted know from an early age that life is a mixture of good and bad.
THE MIDDLE CHILD
There is one point on which all birth order researchers tend to agree: middle children get the worst deal. Middle children are the hardest to classify because they are so dependent on different variables, including the personalities of their older and younger siblings and the number of years between them. A child whose next sibling is five or more years older may develop some first-born tendencies. What happens to middle children depends on the total family dynamics. Middle children can be shy or outgoing, reckless or responsible, uptight or laid back. Any number of life-styles can appear, but they all play off the first-born. He or she may try to imitate the first-born’s behavior. If they feel that they can’t match up, they may go off in another direction, looking for their own identity, often in the exact opposite of that taken by his or her older sibling. The general conclusion of all research studies done on birth order is that second-borns will probably be somewhat the opposite of first-born children. In general, middle born children suffer from an identity crisis. They are always striving to be different from their older and younger siblings.
Middle children feel that they are born too late to get the privileges and special treatment that first-born seem to inherit by right and born too early to enjoy the relaxing of the disciplinary reins, which is sometimes translated as “getting away with murder”. Neither the achiever nor the baby, the middle child may feel that he or she has no particular role in the family. An interesting fact is that of all the siblings, they tend to have the least pictures in the family album.
Middle children are five times more likely to be held back a grade.
They may look outside the family to define themselves. This is why friends become very important to middle children. Middle children search to find their own identity and define their personality. Because middle children have to fight for their parents’ attention, they become highly competitive. This generally makes middle children more successful in sports. Lacking the benefit of the exceptions parents make for their first-borns and last borns, middle children may learn to negotiate, to compromise, and to give and take, valuable skills that will help them succeed. They can become effective managers and leaders because they are good listeners and can cope with varying points of view. They tend to be loyal to their peer group and have many friends. This may be because they like to avoid conflict and act as mediators.
Also, experts have found that because middle children have had to struggle for more things than their siblings do they are better prepared for real life. One big plus for middle children is a well-developed sense of empathy because they know what it’s like to be younger and older. However, all the competing and negotiating may cause middle children to have an overall low self-esteem and a self-deprecating attitude. Nevertheless, middle children have many advantages. They can learn from the older sibling but can also regress to be like the younger one, doubling their learning opportunities. Yet, they may also have many mood swings between grown-up and baby-like behavior, especially during the teen-age years.
Middle children need time where they’re not being compared, at least in their own heads, to their older, or to their younger siblings. Time where they can get the individual attention from their parents.
THE SECOND-BORN CHILD
Because slightly more than one third of American families today have only two children, many parents find themselves thinking in terms of the first born and second born. Middle and second-born children share many of the same characteristics. Like the middle child, the second-born is likely to search for ways to be different from the first-born child. Problems arise when a family has very rigid expectations. If the only thing that matters is straight A’s and the first kid is doing that, the middle kid has a dilemma. He or she needs something else to be known for. Richard Nixon and Princess Diana are middle borns that became very well known.
THE YOUNGEST BORN CHILD
What comes to mind when you think of youngest-born children? Most people would list these characteristics: manipulative, charming, blames others, shows off, people person, good salesperson, precocious, engaging, and sometimes spoiled. By the time the youngest child is born, his or her parents have become veterans in the field of childcare. They are more experienced and confident in their parenting practices, and so they often decide to let the last-born enjoy childhood as long as they can. This is why youngest children tend to be more pampered than older siblings are.
In a way, adulthood is delayed for the youngest. The youngest or “baby” of the family is often given an extra dose of affection and attention, as well as an occasional exception from the rules. This extremely positive upbringing helps to contribute to the youngest child’s fun-loving, affectionate, and persuasive behavior. The youngest child can grow up to feel the most treasured and the most nurtured of all. Also, without the pressure of a younger sibling gaining from behind, the youngest may grow up easy going and carefree.
Many youngest-borns go into careers that have to do with comedy or the arts. Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, and even Ronald Regan are all youngest- borns that went into acting.
However, there can be a flip side. Last-born children may feel that their families do not take them seriously. Youngest children often have feelings of insecurity or long periods of self-doubt. For example, a youngest child grows up being coddled one minute as a darling little baby, but the next minute she’s compared in an unfavorable way with an older sibling. He or she is often unfairly compared with older and stronger siblings. The self-image of the youngest child may become confused. As a result of conflicting experiences, youngest children can be extremely self-confident in some ways and insecure in others. For the most part, youngest children learn to cope with the problems of self-doubt. In fact, youngest children often go on to become quite successful, thanks in part to their originality and determination to prove themselves to the world.
PARENTING CHANGES ALONG THE WAY
Parents remember their first child well. They watched them to make sure they were breathing in their crib, breastfed and/or sterilized bottles for them and carried them most of the time, even to their detriment. That child is the only child that will ever have his or her parents completely to his/her self; all other children have to share.
If you think about it, firstborn children enter a family of adults who are proud of their every progress and frightened by every potential injury.
As additional babies come along parents learn. They make adaptations.
The child caught in the middle is often dominated by the firstborn, who is older, wiser and more competent. By the time the baby arrives, parents are usually worn down, worn out and less likely to micro-manage. By now, parents usually know their baby is not going break, and therefore, they can be more flexible in both attention and discipline. They learn that the baby needs to learn to self-soothe and not to carry them all the time. As a result, the baby learns early on to seduce and entertain.
With multiple kids the eldest child is frequently part time caretaker for the younger children. Parents who are out numbered and busy with all of the activities of the family shift things they would have done for the first themselves.
Parents learn along the way what works and what doesn’t. How often, outside of birth order, do we hear “she was a different Mom to my sister than she was to me”.
- More delegation of duties to others including the children. With less to manage you can do more of it yourself. If you’ve got several children to keep track of, doing everything becomes impossible.
- Less new parent panic. With my first I called the doctor every time they looked at me funny, now I check for fever and monitor symptoms.
- Much less authoritarian. For example, when the first kid would complain about food I would tell them they needed to eat what I made because “I don’t run a short order restaurant.” In many ways, these days, because of gluten allergy and sensory issues, I do. I also over monitored the first couple of kids. “Helicopter parenting” is the new derisive term though I think that parents who get that label are most often unfairly judged.
Different parenting, even by the same parents, have an effect on children.
CHALLENGES TO THE THEORY
Not everyone agrees with the view that birth order has an effect on personality. Dalton Conley, author of “The Pecking Order,” a book on the effects of birth order, says, “birth order makes about as much sense as astrology, which is almost none.”
Oklahoma psychology professor Joseph Lee Rodgers, Ph.D., has stated that the theory does not hold any truth. He challenges popular belief by arguing that there is no immediate link between birth order and the factor of intelligence. He claims that studies that have found a correlation between birth order and intelligence were flawed because they did not compare children within families. Rodgers also argues against the Confluence Theory. The Confluence Theory states that the intelligence level in the family decreases as the number of children increases. The second part of the Confluence Theory claims that the reason for this decrease is due to the fact that the elder children teach the younger siblings. In other words, the older children gain intellectually from teaching their younger siblings and because last born children have no one to teach, their development, in turn suffers.
Findings that suggest associations of psychological birth order and measures of lifestyle but not actual birth order with measured lifestyle, suggest that psychological birth order may be more descriptive of individuals in defining life positions than is actual birth order. The variables are related to the way in which people make meaning of their worlds.
To sum it all up, the order in which one was born does affect personality. The majority of people tend to have characteristics that are typical of their “order”. But birth order is not a simple system of stereotyping all first-borns as having one personality, with all second-borns another, and last-borns a third. Instead, birth order is about general characteristics and tendencies that may apply through environment.
According to Judith Grahm, with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, spacing is a factor. Whenever there is a gap of five or more years between children, it often means that a second family has begun. So a child born third in a family constellation but whose next older sibling is seven years older, may develop first-born tendencies. This doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have any characteristics of a middle or last-born child, but is likely to also be quite adult conscientious and exacting because he had so many older models.
Grahm goes on to explore how birth order characteristics can change by the sex of the child. The first born of any gender is more likely to take on first-born characteristics. Sometimes work or chores are assigned based on sex. In a very traditional home the oldest male usually gets the manly chores such as cutting the lawn, digging weeds, hauling trash, and helping Dad. His younger sister would be assigned the mother’s helper jobs: ironing, housecleaning, doing the dishes, and so on. In larger families, when sex differences create someone special (like three boys and one girl) it can put pressure on the children immediately above or below that special person.
The physical makeup of the children can turn birth order upside down or at least tilt it a bit sideways. Examples here could include
- two closely spaced boys with the youngest being significantly bigger;
- a firstborn girl who is extremely pretty and a second-born girl who is extremely plain;
- a child in any birth order who has a serious physical or mental disability.
An individual’s upbringing, socio-economic status, environment, and genetic makeup are all among the contributing factors. The sexes of the siblings, the amount of years spaced between them, and even physical appearance all impact one’s overall personality. But no matter what spot a person occupies in a family, there are always forces that can intervene and turn things around. Parents should attempt to help each child to see themselves as unique individuals and avoid comparisons with siblings or others. Personality is far too complex to be solely determined by birth order.
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