Does Birth Order Matter?

The ancients had Zeus to blame for thunder, and Diana to thank for the fortunes of the hunt. Nowadays, we have our own myths to explain the world around us, along with a running argument about whether or not they are true.

Is it myth or reality, for example, that no pain means no gain? That you can raise your IQ by eating fish? That firstborn children are natural leaders?

Most experts will agree that the first two statements are a myth. But you can find authorities on both sides of the birth order debate. Some say your personality is dependent on whether you are the oldest child in the family, a middle child, the youngest child, or the only child. Others say there’s never been a reliable study that’s proven this.

One social psychologist even likened the birth order theory to astrology. According to Toni Falbo of the University of Texas, it’s a way for people to say they’re not responsible for the way they are.

Others say that what matters is the entire family constellation, including how many children there are, how far apart they are in age, and whether or not they are all the same sex. A few days ago, one of my students asked me if the fact that she wasn’t the firstborn could be an explanation for her not being so active in reading in class or taking on a leader’s role. I told her I couldn’t answer her question but let’s take a closer look.

Judith Blake, the author of Family Size and Achievement, says it’s the size of the family you’re born into and not the order in which you are born that’s important. The fewer the siblings, the more attention each child gets from the parents. Parental attention typically increases a child’s verbal skills, which is important to success in school.

Birth order, then, is just one of several factors that contribute to personality. Despite criticism, it continues to fascinate many people. And taken in the context of the whole family environment, it can help you understand yourself, your family members, and your friends.

Numero Uno

Firstborns get a lot of attention from their parents. Their first step is carefully recorded in the baby book, and their first words are reported joyously — and repeatedly — to Grandma and Grandpa. It’s not long before the baby gets the message that the way to keep parents’ attention is to continue achieving wonderful new skills.

Along comes baby number two. It must be a mystery to the older child why parents need another baby if they are so delighted with the first. Now the firstborn must be super-conscientious in order to keep his parents pleased. Obviously, that means working hard in school. Firstborns tend to be serious and hardworking and the kind of student teachers lover. Sometimes they are perfectionists–people who expect themselves to do things perfectly all the time. According to Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book, firstborns are often leaders in business and government.

Second’s Thoughts

Meanwhile, the second child sees he needs a different game plan in order to get his share of attention. He’s not under as much pressure as his older sibling, so he may grow up more relaxed, but he still has to find out where he fits into the family. Since academics is already spoken for, he may turn his efforts to athletics, or music, or art. If he has some talent in these areas, things may work out fine. If not, the second child is more willing than the first to break the rules and get attention by getting into trouble.

When the youngest comes along, what’s left? Making the most of being the baby, that’s what. The baby gets attention by letting others do things for him, and by smiling charmingly in return. Youngest children may grow up thinking they need others to solve their problems, although they are very capable of taking care of themselves.

Youngest children tend to be outgoing, optimistic, and entertaining. They sometimes have trouble making decisions, and they have to work at self-discipline. It also affects the way they see themselves as less-disciplined which may have an effect on their self-love and self-esteem later on in their lives.

The middle child–who might be born second or later–has been a subject of controversy among child experts. Some say they are well adjusted and great negotiators because they learn to maneuver between older siblings and younger ones. Others say their self-esteem suffers and they feel left out as parents focus on the oldest and the youngest offspring. One of their strengths is tact; one of their weaknesses is a lack of assertiveness.

Lonely? Not the Only

And what of the only child? People used to think they were destined to grow up spoiled and lonely. Current research shows that’s just not so. They are just as likely to be sociable and generous. Since there’s no competition for parents’ attention, only children often feel confident and secure. They communicate well with adults, a talent that helps them get along well with teachers, bosses, and other authority figures. They may have to work at getting along with people their own age because they don’t have much practice with compromising and cooperating.

Birth order is more or less important depending on what else is happening in the family constellation. It makes a difference if the family consists of all boys, all girls, or a mix. Take the issue of success in school. A family may be able to accommodate more than one scholar if one is a boy and one is a girl.

Same-sex families may have less of a tendency to stereotype gender roles. Daughters in an all-girl family may be encouraged to fix the car, go out for the team, or plan to be an engineer. Sons in an all-boy family may have a greater chance to learn to cook, babysit for relatives, or study nursing.

Give Them Space

Many studies have looked at how spacing between children affects them. Although the studies do not always agree, there seems to be some general feeling that children have an easier time if they are not extremely close in age. One researcher says children who are far apart in age are better adjusted and more successful intellectually. Another says sibling rivalry lessens as the age spread between children increases. It’s at a peak when there is two years’ difference between siblings.

Still another factor is the birth order of the parents. If your mom is the oldest in her family, for example, she may tend to be more empathic with her own oldest child. She also may tend to be hardest on that child, because she’s emotionally connected to the joys and sorrows of that place in the birth order.

There is no best place in the birth order. The trick is to accentuate the positives of each place and adjust to the negatives. And remember: There is room for many stars in the family constellation.