Whether you’re wondering about your own hang-ups or searching to understand your children better, birth order psychology offers eye-opening explanations.
Sorting out the stereotypes
Are your socks organized by color? Did you cry the first time you saw a minus next to your A? Do you plan your family’s menu a week at a time? If yes, you’re likely a firstborn. Firstborns are the easiest to identify by their characteristics—they’re leaders, perfectionists, high achievers and rule keepers.
As Linda Blair, author of Birth Order: What Your Position in the Family Really Tells You About Your Character, points out, firstborns are “the only ones that had full [parental] attention and then lost it.” They often spend their lives trying to regain that attention (albeit subconsciously), aiming to please mom and dad by doing everything “right” by their standards. Eldest children are typically good students and early achievers who may inherit adult-size portions of anxiety as well. They are extra organized, black-and-white thinkers. Many CEOs, presidents, doctors and professors are firstborns.
During childhood, firstborns may harbor some resentment toward younger siblings. Having to share the parents can mean jealousy or feelings of competitiveness. As a parent, let your firstborn know she is not being pushed aside when a new baby enters the family. Even if she’s too young for this conversation, reassure her with hugs, smiles and special one-on-one time.
You will be a different parent to your second child than you were to your first. And you will feel guilty about that from time to time. But all you can do is all you can do—it’s simply not possible to recreate the firstborn experience with every child.
Joseph Price, PhD, associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University, found that second-born children receive about 3,000 fewer hours of parental time between the ages of 4 and 13 than their firstborn siblings. Having children three or more years apart can significantly increase the one-on-one time you’re able to share with each child, but a disparity will still exist.
Because middle children tend to receive less parental attention than eldest or youngest children, they often compensate by growing closer to peers; interestingly, they sometimes feel more at home outside the home. They are loyal to friends and, when married, to their spouses.
Middle children are thought to be the most troubled and emotionally conflicted in the bunch, but this stereotype is far from universal. Blair labels the middle child the “schmoozer.” Kevin Leman, PhD, author of The Birth Order Book, calls him the “negotiator.” He’s the family pacifist, good in social situations and aware of others’ feelings. A middle child may, however, lose track of what he really wants as he aims to please his siblings or fit in with the crowd.
Parents tend to loosen the reins as the years roll by, so the baby of the family may grow up in a relatively relaxed environment. This builds babies who are carefree, fun and easygoing. Youngest children like people—they’re happy being the center of attention and expect others to like them. They are skilled people persons and comfortable hanging with an older crowd. School falls by the wayside for a youngest child more preoccupied with fun and friends. Comedians (i.e., Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Carell) are predominantly lastborns who have cashed in on their natural spontaneity and well developed sense of humor.
Where eldest children are often risk averse, lastborns are risk takers. Great creative minds—scientists, artists of various sorts—are often the babies of their families. They are the faction least afraid to push the boundaries.
What’s the downside to being a lastborn? When babies are babied too much, they can feel entitled, becoming manipulative or feeling frustrated when life’s not going their way.
Identifying other factors
The standard birth order definitions apply most directly to a family with three kids of the same gender born fairly close together. But of course, most families do not fit that particular mold, so exceptions come into play. For example, if a middle child is the first of his gender, he’ll be treated differently and may take on some characteristics of a firstborn. If a gap of five or more years exists between two children, the younger child theoretically starts a “new family” and may seem like a first child. If the eldest child is disabled or otherwise disadvantaged, the next sibling in line may become the acting firstborn.
Of course, birth order is only one variable that can affect the way a person turns out. Economic status, genetics, health, parental involvement, the parents’ relationship, peer groups and school environment— all of these play into character development. The total package of a person has many influences!
Parenting with birth order in mind
With your first child, you’re likely to put on the pressure without necessarily knowing it. What you see as helpful encouragement could be causing her undue stress, so try to take it easy and show her unconditional love. You want her to know that you’ll approve of her whether or not she’s first in her class.
The middle child is mostly in need of attention. You may not be able to give him the exact same time of attention you give his older or younger sibling, but remember: Perception is the key. If a child perceives that he is loved and treated fairly, that’s what matters most.
It’s easy to favor the baby of the family—he’s just so cute and funny! However, he needs boundaries too. Letting him get away with murder isn’t doing him (or anyone else) any favors. He deserves your high expectations as much as anyone else.
As a parent, you might find yourself identifying most with the child who occupies the birth position you held. Even though the two of you may have much in common, avoid the pitfall of believing you know everything your child is facing just because you share the same birth order. And don’t let a special bond make your other children feel left out. Every child needs individual time and attention; he wants to be wanted, validated and loved, no matter where he falls in the family lineup.