As an adult, you probably don’t think a lot about birth order – that is, when you were born in relation to your siblings. Your position as the oldest, middle, youngest, or only-child isn’t a conscious part of your everyday life but it’s played a role in your development into the person you are today.
Even if you’re not close with your siblings anymore, your life and relationships are still influenced by your role in your family growing up.If you’re a parent, especially if your kids aren’t grown yet, birth order definitely influences your daily life. Your relationship with your oldest child is probably quite a bit different from your relationship with your youngest child. If you have an only child, you have a unique relationship with them because they’re your only one.
And, you can definitely observe differences in your children based on their birth order. Of course, all children have unique personalities. Their genders and temperaments influence their role in your family, not just when they were born. But there are specific traits that are often found in the oldest, middle, and youngest children across different families and cultures.
Birth order plays a role in other relationships as well. Where did your parents fall in line with their respective families? What about your spouse? How does this influence your relationships with them?
Keep reading to learn more about birth order and its influence on our lives, personalities, and relationships.
Birth Order in Development Psychology
Although psychologists disagree on the significance of birth order in child development, most acknowledge that it does play a role, so much so that the study of birth order is a key component of developmental psychology.
Birth order doesn’t create traits that are set in stone. For every middle child trait, there’s an oldest child who has that same trait and vice versa. But birth order theory underscores general tendencies. It can be a helpful way to illuminate or understand patterns in family life.
It’s also possible that a person’s actual birth order does not correspond with their role in the family. Alfred Adler was one of the first psychologists to emphasize the significance of birth order, He used the example of a child whose older sibling was chronically ill and therefore unable to carry out the typical role of firstborn. In that case, the second child would have more traits characteristic of the firstborn.
Other aspects of family life also affect the role played by birth order. How closely are siblings spaced? If there is a large gap between two children, for example, they may operate like two firstborns or two only-children.
How many children are there in the family? A large family may have several middle children. What is the family’s financial and social status? This will affect the experiences of each child and the experiences they have depending on their birth order.
But, there is no doubt that birth order affects relationships between family members, and possibly to a lesser extent, personality and life experience in general. Here are a few traits related to each role in family life.
Oldest Child Traits: The Achiever
Out of all possible sibling roles, firstborns have the most noticeable differences. If the firstborn child happens to be female, those differences are even more pronounced. As firstborns grow up, they often have higher levels of anxiety than their siblings, but they are also more intellectual and higher achieving: “A study of Norwegians born between 1912 and 1975 found that educational achievement was highest in first-borns and diminished the further down the birth order you got, despite little difference in IQ.”
Firstborn children become CEOs or politicians at a 30% higher rate than their siblings. So yes, these children tend to be the ones who do well in school and become leaders in their career fields.
The phenomenon known as the “birth order effect” notes that oldest children, as adults, usually attain a higher level of education and earn more money than their siblings. This difference is more noticeable the bigger the gap between the oldest child and subsequent siblings.
But at the same time, as noted above, oldest siblings feel more anxious, especially if they’re girls. This may be due to their parents’ heightened protectiveness and attention being focused on them at first but then decreased when the second child was born.
Oldest children are also the most likely out of all siblings (or only-children) to have children themselves.
Middle Child Traits: The MediatorWhat about the middle child – a second, third, or subsequent child who has both an older and a younger sibling? Middle children often have a very specific set of traits, commonly known as “middle child syndrome,” that relate to the feeling of being left out. Middle children don’t receive the extra attention (in the form of either strictness, greater privileges, or both) given to the oldest, or the special treatment given to the youngest.
Research has shown that second-born children are exposed to less verbal interaction than firstborns. They are often called “the mediator” because they serve as the peacemaker or go-between with other family members, or they might be people-pleasers, yet they also may have a rebellious streak.
Kevin Leman, the author of The Birth Order Book, says “(M)iddle children are the toughest to pin down because they do play off their older sibling.” He explains that the gender of the siblings is an important component of birth order. If the oldest two children are opposite-sex, the second-born may take on some of the leadership characteristics of the firstborn, because they are the firstborn of that gender.
Youngest Child Traits: The Entertainer
Youngest children are often fun-loving, social, and maybe a touch self-centered due to their position as the babies of the family. By the time parents are raising their youngest child, whether the second, third or so on, they’ve most likely relaxed some of the original rules they imposed on the firstborn.
It is possible parents may also provide less for the youngest child, whether in the way of attention or experiences, simply because there are fewer practical and emotional resources to go around.
Notably, youngest-born children love attention, and if there’s a class clown, there’s a strong likelihood he’s the youngest.
According to psychologists, if any of the birth order roles are likely to be “spoiled,” it’s this one. This may just be a stereotype, but it does seem true that youngest children are most likely to be treated indulgently by their parents.
Only-Child Traits: The Responsible One
Only-children are in a category of their own when it comes to birth order, of course, but they also take on many of the traits of firstborns. They are frequently mature and may be perfectionistic. They’re used to receiving a lot of their parents’ attention, giving them a greater opportunity to bond with them.
“Only-child syndrome” actually refers to a prejudice against only-children – that they “always want to get their way, can’t share and are generally selfish,” but some studies have shown that there are no personality differences between children with and without siblings, except that they usually have a stronger bond with their parents.
A study from China found that only-children scored lower on scores of tolerance, meaning they might find it more difficult to get along with others, but higher in creativity, or lateral problem-solving. The same study used MRI scans and found that only-children had more gray matter, meaning higher levels of intelligence.
Christian Counseling for Parenting and Relationship Issues
There are obviously pros and cons to each position in one’s family, or whether one is an only child. And not of all these traits hold true across the board, they’re merely interesting observations about how birth order affects our relationships and temperaments throughout our lives.
How can being aware of birth order make you a better parent? What’s most important, as Scientific American concludes, is “creating a loving and calm environment.” No matter whether your child is the oldest, youngest, or somewhere in between, you can create a strong bond with them that will last into adulthood and contribute positively to their development.
If you could use some help navigating the dynamics of your family or working with one of your children, in particular, feel free to contact one of the counselors in our counselor directory above.
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