Where children fall in the family line can have a tremendous impact on their development, emotional experiences, interpersonal relationships – even academic performance.
Published: December 29, 2020
By: Denise Yearian
Birth order is a concept that suggests children of a particular family position share some of the same experiences, which may cause them to take on similar attributes. But is it a valid theory? And if so, what can parents learn from it?
Meri Wallace, Brooklyn, NY-based MSW, child and family therapist and author of Birth Order Blues, thinks it’s a concept worth considering. “It isn’t the sole factor in the shaping of a child’s life, nor does it mean there will always be definitive character traits and outcomes. But understanding how birth order affects children is key to a family’s well being,” she says.
Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick, professor for the Department of Individual and Family Studies at the University of Delaware, agrees. “When balanced with the child’s individual personality, preference and style, birth order is a good tool parents can use to reflect on family dynamics and childhood experiences.”
This is what Karen Kolek, mother of three, did. “When I read a book about birth order, I saw some classic traits in my children, particularly my oldest,” she says, referring to nine-year-old Kyle. “He’s very academically oriented and has perfectionist tendencies and high expectations for himself.”
This is typical of many first-born children, explains Wallace. “Because most firstborns have their parents’ undivided love and attention, there’s more time for pursuing academic interests and interacting one-on-one.”
Whitney Hoffman, mother of 11-year-old James and 8-year-old John, found this to be true. “When James was born, he was not only our first child but the first grandchild on both sides of the family, so everything was focused on him,” she recalls. “Even after John was born, we spent extra time with James so he would know he was still special.”
All this attention may seem like an advantage, but there are disadvantages too. Most first-time moms and dads are inexperienced with regard to parenting and may place unrealistic expectations on their children, which in turn, could cause a child to become driven or have perfectionist tendencies.
“In a typical family pattern, parents who have had one child generally get more comfortable in the parenting role,” says Gamel-McCormick. “By the time the second, third or fourth ones come along they ease up on standards and expectations, and interact differently with later-born children.”
Parental interaction is one factor that plays into birth order. Sibling relationship is another. “When there’s a small age gap between children it can promote closeness,” says Wallace. “At the same time, it creates a strong rivalry because they each have similar needs and are vying for the same kind of attention.”
Younger siblings, she says, may also wrestle with identity issues. They may see themselves as an extension of their older sibling, but they may also feel overshadowed and inadvertently search for their own areas to shine.
This is one of Hoffman’s concerns. “I think John’s identity is somewhat tied to his brother’s,” she says. “He looks up to him as a hero and even seems a little lost when he’s not around.”
But John also picks on James in a rivalry way. “The boys have plenty of opportunities to play together, but sometimes James wants to be alone,” Hoffman continues. “If he’s doing something like a video game, John is right there and wants to do it too. That’s when we have problems.”
The Hoffmans aren’t the only ones who feel the sibling squeeze. From time to time 7-year-old Conner Kolek laments about being the middle child.
“Sometimes Conner says, ‘I’m not the oldest and I’m not the youngest,’ so I turn it around and tell him he has the best of both worlds,” says Kolek. “He gets to do big kid things with his brother and he still has a younger sister to play with.”
But according to Kolek, Conner’s complaint is really a cry for attention. “I didn’t have the time with him that I had with Kyle or that I have now with Julianna (age 5). Even though he would never admit it, he needs me,” she says. So Kolek tries to spend a little extra time with Conner doing something he enjoys.
Experts agree individualized time centered on a child’s interests is one of the best ways to diminish sibling rivalry and help children feel more confident about their parents’ love. Another way to decrease sibling strife is to help children establish their own identity by encouraging them to pursue their own interests.
Appreciating and celebrating a child’s individuality is, after all, the key to helping children grow into confident, well-rounded adults—no matter where they fall in the family line.
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and six grandchildren.
BIRTH ORDER BREAKOUT: VARIABLES, TRAITS AND TENDENCIES
There is a great deal of evidence that shows where children fall in the family line can have an impact on how they view themselves, others and the world. Birth order is a valuable concept that parents can use to reflect on family interactions and childhood experiences. But it isn’t the sole factor in shaping a child’s life. There are variables which hang in the balance and must be considered. They are as follows:
+Parenting style. The philosophy by which parents raise their children can greatly affect traditional birth order traits and tendencies. There are typically four parenting styles: 1. authoritarian, which has many limits and few choices; 2. permissive, characterized by a child-dominated home with few limitations; 3. yoyo, which is inconsistent and swings from authoritarian to permissive; and 4. authoritative, which provides consistent guidance with reality discipline when needed.
+Parent’s birth order position. Where parents fall in their family line of origin can affect how they interact with their children. Parents with children of the same birth order position may consciously or unconsciously over-identify with that child. This can lead to either excess pressure or a softened approach, particularly if the child is of the same gender or temperament. Parents may also view children of a different birth order position in light of their own sibling relationship experiences.
+Family circumstances. Family factors that can affect traditional birth order traits and tendencies include the number of children in the family; sibling gender; spacing between children; parental or sibling disability, illness or death; adoption; divorce; family blending and socio-economic level.
Following is a list of common traits for a given birth order. Note this is only a guide. Experts advise the best way to understand a child is to analyze and study the individual himself.
+First-Borns. Firstborns are often raised with a high set of expectations which may result in perfectionist and people-pleasing personalities. They can be precise and want to see things done right the first time. Many are natural leaders and often have one of two characteristic types: compliant nurturers and caregivers or aggressive movers and shakers. Both types are in control but use different methods in their approach. They may find it hard to delegate work, and others may view them as bossy and a bit of a know-it-all.
+Middle-Borns. Middle borns can have a diverse range of personalities, but most have one thing in common: they have spent little time in the spotlight. With younger and older siblings to contend with, most middleborns are very relational, have good listening skills and can see both sides of a problem. This makes them good negotiators and mediators. Though they may be talented, their skills and abilities are often overshadowed by an older sibling, which may unconsciously drive them to explore unique interests in music, athletics and/or academics.
+Last-Borns. Last borns are the world’s cheerleaders. Most have strong people skills and love to entertain and be the center of attention. They tend to be affectionate, make friends easily and have a knack for making others feel at ease. Last borns often have a strong fear of rejection and may tire of an activity rather quickly.
+Only-Borns. Only borns are sometimes called the movers of the world. They are task-oriented and are often conscientious and dependable. They may be keen with facts and details and are comfortable taking on responsibilities. Because they were the sole focus of their parents’ attention, they may have been pampered and spoiled, which could result in a demanding personality and hating to admit when they are wrong. They also take criticism hard and may be easily hurt by other people.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
How to Love Your Children: Birth Order for Parents by Clifford E. Isaacson
New Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are by Kevin Leman