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It’s common for the oldest and youngest children to have completely different personalities. But, does their birth order have something to do with it?
Birth order and its effects on children
After eight years of waiting, I now have five children, ages 11, 9, 5, and 2-year-old twins. I feel like I always overthink my children’s actions and how I respond. I was the oldest in my family and I relate the most to my oldest, who has a similar personality to my own: mature, serious and responsible. My second daughter is easygoing, not very studious, and not that reliable in doing chores, while my other ones are too young to know what they are like yet. I am curious to know if birth order affects the personality and intelligence of children. If so, what do I need to know to parent each child so that they fulfill their utmost potential?
This is a question I get a lot.
Many people insist that their oldest is more intense, their youngest is fun-loving, and their middle child is always fighting for elbow room. But in truth, the jury is out on whether birth order impacts personality and temperament.
So, let’s talk about it.
Where does the theory of birth order come from?
Alfred Adler, a psychologist who lived from 1870-1937, originated this theory of personality that focused on understanding someone within the context of their family-of-origin. He theorized that all character traits and behaviors are impacted by a child’s environment, and is most famous for his belief in the impact of birth order on a child’s development.
Adler spent years studying this topic. While the validity of his research remains unclear, here is a brief rundown of how he believed birth order affects each sibling.
The First Born:
Adler believed that the oldest child is more likely to be a perfectionist and seek affirmation. This, in turn, creates intellectualism, conscientiousness, and leadership in social settings. The reason for this, says Adler, is that the firstborn has been dethroned by his younger sibling and has lost his parents’ undivided attention. He may spend his whole life working to get it back.
Having younger siblings represents a new responsibility for the oldest child. The firstborn often becomes a role model and leader for his younger brothers and sisters.
The middle child:
Adler believed that the middle child is more likely to be competitive and rebellious, struggling to find room for himself in his family. Although it is difficult, this lifelong struggle can lead to a lot of positive developments. The child may choose to specialize in something (such as music, art, or science) in order to stick out, and this can lead to excellence in their chosen fields. His or her ability to navigate as the middle child between others may also contribute to their social skills, flexibility, and diplomacy.
The youngest child:
The youngest child is often babied by his or her family. This leads to negative traits being associated with this child, such as dependency and selfishness. But there are positive qualities that come along with it as well. These children tend to be more confident, fun-loving and entertaining, due to their ability to get their parents’ attention.
Adler believed that birth order impacted every family, not just those with three children. There are many other family constructions that he theorized impact a child’s personality.
Because only children don’t have to share with their siblings, this can lead to some difficulty outside of the home. They have a hard time hearing “no”, and therefore have trouble transitioning to school, where they need to share the teacher’s attention. These children may also possess the same selfishness and dependency of the youngest-born.
On the positive side, because they grow up with adults exclusively, they tend to be more mature and are better at speaking to adults. They also have the strongest tendencies toward academic and creative success.
With twins, the (slightly) older one is usually viewed as the leader, being more active and physically stronger than the other. If they are fraternal twins of the opposite gender, the younger one may conform to the oldest’s gender roles in an attempt to fit in.
How do families with more than three children fit into this picture? Adler believed that there are subgroups that develop in families. Groups of children within the same family take on the characteristics of the oldest, middle, and youngest child, depending on their birth order and the age difference between the children.
The theory behind birth order is far from an exact science.
While all of this sounds fascinating, as I have said at the outset, little rigorous research supports Adler’s hypothesis of birth order. Adler himself noted that parental attachment, gender roles, and economic status likely play a larger role in a child’s development than the birth order itself. According to various studies, there is almost zero correlation between birth order and intelligence, personality, or development. Economic status, attachment styles, and parental relationships, as well as genetic components of a person’s makeup, show a far greater correlation to these areas.
If anything, the research shows that when people are aware of this information about birth order, they are more likely to see a connection than people unaware of Adler’s work.
So, my dear overthinking parent, I am not sure how I can help you with your question. I think it’s common sense that as new parents we expect a lot of our oldest. We are rarely content with their milestones, anxiously awaiting their next one. While with our second child, we already know what is coming and revel in the simple pleasures of watching the baby’s first smile without wondering when they will rollover. That kind of behavior most certainly impacts a child.
The oldest is subtly forced to perform all the time, while the second is allowed to unfold naturally, without pressure. That intense presentation of the oldest versus the carefree attitude of the second would make sense in this context. Maybe birth order impacts this, but if a parent is aware of these expectations and attitudes, they may alter their behavior and both children may be more carefree. Maybe.
Regardless of birth order, children need the room to be themselves.
It may be more useful to celebrate the positive traits of each child rather than buttonholing them into a specific box in which they will be imprisoned for the rest of their lives. We’ve all seen it, and many of us have been guilty of it ourselves. “This is my smart one,” and “This is my baby”, each impact the child differently, setting them on a trajectory of “I need to be smart to win my parent’s approval” or “I need to remain a dependent baby to maintain my parent’s love.”
See what I mean?
Don’t create your child’s potential with your positive or negative expectations. Be open and flexible as they try out different personas and personality traits. Eventually, they will trust themselves to blossom in the direction that fits them the best, instead of trying to squeeze into the mold you’ve put them in.
There’s an old story about a man who wanted his plant to grow so badly that he hovered over it every day. Until he ended up blocking the sun and stunting its growth. Let’s try not to do the same with our kids.
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This article was originally published in Binah Magazine.