DOES BIRTH ORDER MATTER?
ome breakfast time, it’s usually 8-year-old Sam who pours the cereal, milk & juice for himself and his two younger sisters while his mom, Betsy Binning, of
Columbus, Ohio, takes care of baby Timothy. Five -year-old Annelise is
quite capable of pouring her own cereal, but she’s happy to let Sam do it so she can
concentrate on her coloring. Meanwhile, 2-year-old Lydia is showing signs that
she’s not so happy to have Timmy around. “She used to be the one balancing Froot
Loops on her nose.” Binning says. “But now she sometimes seems distraught that
she;’s not the baby anymore. The other day she took Timmy’s pacifier and told him
be couldn’t have it back.”
As the Binning family demonstrates, where you fall in the family lineup plays a role
in shaping behavior and personality. Sam is a typical oldest child; He’s a take-charge kind of guy. Annelise is a little unsure of her place in the family and lets her
brother be the responsible one, while Lydia is used to being the family clown, who
everyone indulges. Now that she’s no longer the baby, she’s a little more subdued
as she navigates her new role.
The theory that birth order shapes personality originated with psychologist Alfred
Adler in the early 1900s. Many psychologists today agree with Adler’s ideas. In a
study of some 6,500 people who lived during the past 500 years, Frank Sulloway,
Ph. D., author of Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dyuamics and Creative
Lives (Random House, 1996), found that firstborns are more likely to become
achievement-oriented leaders who support the status quo. Later-borns, he found,
are often unconventional and adventurous, more open to new ideas.
Of course, birth order is only one factor shaping experience and personality, says
Kevin Letnan, Ph. D., author of The New Birth Order Book (Baker Book House,
1998). Genes, temperament, and gender are important, too. But there’s no question
that the youngest of four in a family is likely to have a different experience growing
up than the oldest, simply because the family dynamic changes with the birth of
each child. By being aware of the pros and cons of each child’s birth order, you
can better understand your kids’ behavior and take steps to help them thrive, says
Nlerri Wallace, MSW, author of Birth Order Blues (Henry Holt, 1999). Here’s a
look at various family niches.
“Oldest children are buffers for younger siblings,” Dr. Ieman says. “They take the humps and bruises that make it easier for everyone else.” Parents are more likely to
project their dreams onto their oldest child; similarly, firstborns are more likely to
look to parents as role models and identify most closely with their values. They
may do better in school than later children and are more likely to be reliable and
conscientious. And because they’ve learned to take care of younger siblings, they
are often good nurturers,
Extreme expectations . It’s natural to dote on your firstborn— every milestone,
from first babbles to first steps, is worthy of videotaping. The danger is that all that excitement can translate into pressure. Firstborns may become worried perfection-ists if parents push them too hard. By the time parents get to their second or third
child, their expectations are more realistic, and they learn to lighten up. In the
meantime, Dr. Leman suggests that parents curb the tendency to he overly critical of
Denothronement. The minute a brother or sister arrives, the firstborn is no longer
the apple of everybody’s eye. You can help your oldest cope by acknowledging his
feelings rather than pretending everything is the same. Wallace suggests saying, ’ It
must be hard for you, because I have to spend so much time with the baby. I want
to play cars with you hut I need to feed the baby. What should we do?”
Heavy responsibilities. Your oldest child may become resentful if you burden him
with chores simply because he’s the most capable. Once younger children are old
enough, they should do their share, too.
MIDDLE CHILDREN: NATURAL NEGOTIATORS
Although this birth order position tends to get a bad rap, there are advantages to being in the middle. “Middle children are often diplomats because they learn to
wheel and deal, playing both ends against each other,” Dr. Sulloway says. They
tend to be good at seeing the big picture and all sides of an issue.. They may also
be more social, as they often look for attention outside the family.
THE PIT FALLS
Feeling trapped or lost. Middle children may think they don’t get the privileges of the older sibling, yet they can’t get away with the antics of the baby. They arc
always running to catch up to the firstborn, while the younger one is breathing
down their neck. Dr. Lcman frequently hears, “My older brother got all the glory
and my little sister got all the attention. I didn’t feel special.”
To help middle children feel empowered, Dr. Leman advises parents to make sure
they find the time to listen to them and allow them to vent their frustrations. It’s also
important to nurture their interests, so they can stand out from older siblings in
Rebellion. Because middle children often feel squeezed between the oldest and
youngest, they’re more likely to look to their friends for a sense of belonging and
be influenced by their peer group. Carve out one-on-one time so they feel special.
For example, when Binnig’s parents came to help with Timothy, she encouraged
them to take just Annelise to buy groceries. “She was so thrilled to have special
time with her grandparents,” Binnig says.
LAST-BORNS: GREAT AT SIZING UP PEOPLE AND
The baby of the family tends to be very good at reading people, “similar to the way a quarterback is adept at reading the defense,” notes Dr. Leman. They’re-exposed to a wider range of interests and attributes than the older children were,
so they often learn things faster. Their parents are usually more relaxed, allowing
last-born to eat more candy and watch more T-V than older siblings did at the same
age, so these kids may be looser and more easygoing.
Lower expectations. Parents often look the other way when the baby of the family
skips her chores or pesters older siblings, Dr. Leman says. And while older kids
learn from teaching younger ones, the youngest doesn’t get this benefit. Last-borns
need discipline and responsibility, too. Make sure your youngest learns to do home-work and chores independently.
Coddling. It’s tempting to keep your little one little forever. But when you baby a child too much, she doesn’t develop the self-confidence to overcome adversities. Don’t always run to the rescue. Let your youngest learn from her mistakes.
Regardless of your kids’ birth order, your challenge as a parent is the same: to recognize each child for his unique strengths and talents, and make your oldest,
middle, and youngest child feel accepted and loved for who they are.
Marie Faust Eviu is a freelance writer
in Mountain View, California.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE:
Gender: The only girl in a family of boys (or vice versa) often takes on firstborn
characteristics even if she’s the youngest.
Large Spacing between children: A gap of 5 years or more can make a younger
child feel like an oldest or only child.
Blended family: Imagine the potential for competition between two boys who are
both used to firstborn status ro two girls who are each the baby.
Only children: Super-reliable and high achievers, only children are like firstborns
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