Birth Order Characteristics

C 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 firstborns.

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.


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.


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 positive ways.

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.


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.


April 2000


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 —times two.

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