Birth Order

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The concept of birth order, and its influence
in family life is obvious in most families.
I certainly heard it talked about in my family,
growing up as the youngest of five children.
What I didn’t realise was that its validity is
considered somewhat controversial in
psychological circles.
[1]

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Theory of Birth Order

Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud and Jung, was an early proponent of the influence of birth order on personality. His ideas have been well known in families for quite some time: firstborns are leaders; the intended youngest can feel ‘dethroned’ and actual youngest is pampered and spoilt.

Contemporary approaches to birth order often examine the influence of birth order on what are considered the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. [1]

Frank Sulloway, in his book Born to Rebel, asserts that birth order has consistent effects on the Big Five. [2] Sulloway, however, had many critics.

Birth order is defined as a person’s rank by age
among his or her siblings. Birth order is often
believed to have a profound and lasting effect
on psychological development.
[3]
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What is Not Influenced


from cover: "Born to Rebel" Frank Sulloway via Amazon

Birth order does not directly influence:

  • Intelligence
  • Ability to learn
  • Learning style
  • Strengths or challenges
  • Attitudes to learning
  • Tendency towards higher education or trade [4] [5]
    .

General Characteristics

The following information has been largely adapted from Dr Kevin Leman’s respected The Birth Order Book. [6] While there is much information of general and genuine interest on the internet, Dr Lehman’s discussion appealed to me for its balance, consideration, and potential usefulness to  parents and their children in the context of home education.

Each birth order has a set of general characteristics. These can manifest as strengths or weaknesses. In describing these, Dr Leman encourages his readers to:

  1. Set aside a few minutes to consider each trait, and decide whether that trait is a strength or weakness for your child.
  2. If the trait is a weakness, what changes could you encourage, in order to bring improvement in that area?
  3. If the trait is a strength, how could you help your child to0 capitalise on that strength to develop it even further?
    .

First Born

The title ‘first born’ usually applies to the oldest child in the family. Traits can sometimes also apply to the oldest of the gender, having a 5-year (or more) gap between the younger child and the child immediately above, or achieving role reversal by taking over the firstborn privileges and responsibilities.

Firstborns share a number of traits with Onlies (probably because Onlies are usually Firsts as well). Firsts are guinea pigs for parents who have never parented before. Parents are their role models, and even before 12-months-old, they are observing and noting the ‘right’ way to do things – from large and ‘perfect’ adults, not from another developing child as with later-borns.

Many firstborns are discouraged perfectionists, and it is usually liberating for them to learn the difference between perfectionism and excellence. It is interesting note that the very traits and activities that enable Firsts to succeed at school, work or in volunteer roles, are the very traits that work against them in personal relationships.
.

Typical Trait Strength Weakness
Leadership ability Take charge, know what to do May undermine the initiative of those who lean on them too much, or may come off as too overbearing or aggressive
Aggressive Command respect; others want to follow their unflinching leadership Can run roughshod over others; may be insensitive and tend to be selfish; too focussed on the goal and not enough on the feelings of others
Compliant Co-operative, easy to work with, good team player Can be taken advantage of, bullied, bluffed
Organised Have everything under control; always on top of things; tend to be on time and on schedule May worry too much about order, process, and rules and not be flexible with it’s needed; may show real impatience with anyone who is ‘disorganised’ or not as meticulous; can be upset by surprises
Driver Ambitious, enterprising, energetic, willing to sacrifice to be a success Put themselves and those they work with under too much stress and pressure
List maker Set goals and reach them; tend to get more done in a day than others; planning to day is a must May become boxed in, too busy with the to-do list to see the big picture and what needs to be done right now
Logical Known as straight thinkers; can be counted on not to be compulsive or to go off half-cocked May believe they’re always right and fail to pay attention to the more intuitive options of others
Scholarly Tend to be voracious readers and accumulators of information and facts; good problem solvers who think things through May spend too much time gathering facts when there are other things that need to be done; may be so serious they fail to see the humour in situations when humour is desperately needed

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Only Child

Onlies are unique firstborns, in that their status doesn’t change with the birth of a subsequent child. The key to understanding an Only lies in whether the child is a Special Jewel (parents wanted more children but it didn’t happen) or part of the Parental Plan (parents only ever wanted one child).

Contrary to the stereotype of only children being lonely and selfish (other birth orders can be like that too), many Onlies have good self-esteem and great initiative, as well as having a good sense of their ‘place’ in the grand scheme of things.

Onlies have the following unique Typical Traits:
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Typical Trait Strength Weakness
Confident, self assured Trust own opinion, not afraid to make decisions May be self-centred from beieng treated by parents as ‘centre of universe’; also fearful, ambivalent about trying new things
Perfectionist Always do things right and leave no stone unturned to do a thorough job Tend to criticise themselves and/or other too much; never satisfied; may procrastinate because they fear they cannot do a ‘good enough job’

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Onlies also share the following traits, manifesting in the same associated strengths and weaknesses, with other Firstborns (see above for details):

Organised • Driver • List Maker • Logical • Scholarly
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Middle Born

This can be a somewhat nebulous area, depending on the size of the family. ‘Middleness’ is the most difficult to define, describe and generalise about in any meaningful way.

Each child looks ‘above’, sizes up the older sibling, and patterns his/her own life according to what he sees, typically shooting off in a different direction. It is possible, if a firstborn is sickly in some way or of a gentler character, for a secondborn to take over the firstborn’s prestige, privileges and responsibilities.

Because laterborn children play off the ones directly above them, there is no sure-fire way to predict which way they may go or how their personality will develop. Examining charts of middleborn characteristics can be an exercise in inconsistent paradox.

Middleborns may be:

……. loner, quiet, shy OR sociable, friendly outgoing
impatient, easily frustrated OR take life in stride, laid-back ……..
……… very competitive OR easygoing, non-competitive
.. rebel, family goat OR peace-maker, mediator
aggressive, a scrapper OR an avoider of conflict …….

More than with any other birth order, the entire family must be examined in order to understand a particular middle child. Middle children can easily remain something of a mystery to even the most astute of parents.
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Typical Trait Strength Weakness
Grew up feeling squeezed and rootless Learned not to be spoiled May be rebellious because they don’t feel like they fit in
Reasonable expectations Because life hasn’t always been fair, they are unspoiled and realistic Being treated unfairly may have made them suspicious, cynical, even bitter
Social lion Relationships are very important; they make friends and tend to keep them Friends can be too important and not offending them may cloud judgement on key decisions
Independent thinker Willing to do things differently, take a risk, strike out on their own May appear to be bull-headed, stubborn, unwilling to co-operate
Compromising Know how to get along with others; can be skilled at mediating disputes or negotiating disagreements Can be seen as willing to have peace at any price; others may try to take advantage of them
Diplomatic Peacemakers; willing to work things out; great at seeing issues from both sides May hate confrontation’ often choose not to share their real opinions and feelings
Secretive Can be trusted with sensitive information; know how to keep secrets May fail to admit it when they need help – it’s just too embarrassing

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Last Born

‘Babies’ size up their older siblings and usually decide that there is no point trying to compete. Instead, they create their own playing field, becoming the clown, or the nuisance, or the achiever in a completely different field – whatever will get them attention and keep them away from direct competition with those who are older, larger, stronger and better equipped to compete in life.

Lastborns are on a see-saw of emotions and experiences that they find hard to explain or understand – charming and endearing, then rebellious and hard to deal with; powerhouse of energy, then basket cases who feel helpless. The roots of this lie in the mixed messages of childhood – coddled and cosseted and spoiled one minute, then put down and made fun of the next. In self-defense, independent cockiness masks self-doubt and confusion.

High achieving family therapist and youngest child, Mopsy Kennedy, observes that babies of the family “live, inevitably, in the potent shadow of those who were Born Before.” [7] A big driving force for Lastborns is proving that despite that shadow, they can do stuff after all.
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Typical Trait Strength Weakness
Charming Likeable, fun to be around, easy to talk to Manipulative, even a little flaky; seeming to be too slick and a bit unbelievable
People oriented Read others well and know now to relate and work well one on one or in small groups; social settings and events are their cup of tea May come across as undisciplined, prone to talk to much and too long, the kind who talks a good game but can’t always produce
Tenacious Keep on coming with tireless persistence, not taking no for an answer May push too hard because they see things only their way
Affectionate and engaging Caring, loveable, wanting to help; like to get strokes and give them Can be gullible, easily taken advantage; make decisions too much on feeling and not enough on thought
Uncomplicated Appear relaxed, genuine, and trustworthy – no hidden agenda May appear to be absent-minded, a little out of focus – like an airhead
Attention seeking Entertaining and funny, know how to get noticed May appear self-centred, unwilling to give others credit, having a big ego, temperamental, spoiled and impatient

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Variables

These characteristics will not be applicable to all children, as there are a number of variables to consider, including:

  • spacing – number of years between children. Spacing can create more than one ‘family’
  • gender – and sequence of males and females
  • individuality – physical, mental or emotional differences
  • sibling deaths – which affect the functional birth order of the child
  • adoptions – may affect birth order, depending on age of adopted child
  • birth order of both parents – firstborn parents, for example, usually run a much tighter family ‘ship’ than laterborn parents
  • inter-relationship between parents – and parenting styles used to pass on personal values
  • parental ‘critical eye’ – constant criticism takes its toll
  • blended family (whether due to death or divorce) – in step-families, certain birth orders can get ‘stepped on’
    .

The Child Development Institute urges parents to aim
to help each child to see themselves as unique individuals
and avoid comparisons with siblings or others.

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“Children in a family are like flowers in a bouquet:
there’s always one determined to face in an opposite
direction from the way the arranger desires.”
~ Marcelene Cox
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Resources:
[1] Wikipedia: Birth Order article
[2] Birth Order, Frank Sulloway pdf: Reprinted from Evolutionary Family Psychology, by Catherine
…..Salmon and Tod Shackleford eds, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp 162-182

[3] Birth Order Theory, Max Serfaty: Slideshare
[4] Birth Order and Education, Rhonda K Clayton: National Undergraduate Research Clearing House
[5] Does Birth Order Affect Intelligence, Amber Esping: Human Intelligence, Indiana.edu
[6] The Birth Order Book, Dr Kevin Leman: especially Chapters 4, 7, 8 & 9, plus many dabblings throughout.
[7] Mopsy Strange Kennedy, “A Lastborn Speaks Out – At Last,”
Newsweek, November 7, 1977, 22.
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