Let’s say you and your siblings decide to throw an anniversary party for your parents. Which of these scenarios best describes you?
- The first thing you do is start shopping for a new outfit to wear to the party.
- You offer to help plan, but you don’t want to make final decisions, and you might openly disagree with some of the plans your siblings make.
- You immediately contact venues and caterers. You make a spreadsheet that shows all the planning tasks, when they need to be done and who will do them.
If you relate to “A,” then you’re probably the youngest sibling. If you lean toward “B,” then you’re most likely a middle child. Recognize yourself in “C?” You must be the eldest sibling.
If you’ve used birth order to explain your personality, or your children’s personalities, there may be something to it. Some experts believe it could have as much influence as genetics and gender.
According to studies, a child's place in the family, especially when there are two or more siblings, can influence academic achievement and earning power, and it might contribute to risky behavior, too. In a recent study conducted in Denmark and Florida, researchers gathered data that suggests “second-born boys are substantially more likely to exhibit delinquency problems compared to their older sibling.” The study was focused on boys because “delinquency is less common in girls,” they said.
Does parenting play a role?
Many experts agree that behavioral differences between firstborn and later-born children are heavily influenced by parental investment, the nurturing that parents give to children. Psychologist Frank J. Sulloway, known for his studies and extensive writings on birth order, has worked tirelessly for decades on his case for how birth order affects personality. The way in which children are raised makes a significant impression on individual personalities, he argued in his book, “Born to Rebel,” published in 1996.
For example, a new baby for first-time parents is an experiment of sorts, an exercise in instinct and trial-and-error. Fear of the unknown motivates parents to care for their little one “by-the- book.” They’re often overly attentive, cautious and strict. How does this influence your first child? Firstborns tend to be motivated to do things right and well, prefer to follow rules, trust adults and like order.
By the birth of the second child, parents have gained enough experience to feel comfortable handling a wider array of issues. They’re less likely to call their pediatrician about excessive crying or panic over a pacifier that falls on the floor. The rigid schedule parents used during their firstborn’s early days might go out the window, as well as their undivided attention. As a result, second- and later-born children may struggle to find their place in the family. They don’t have the luxury of their parents’ time, like their older sibling. Second-born children tend to look outside the family for social connections; they’re often more rebellious, independent and good mediators.
Beyond baby number two, all bets are off. By then, parenting skills have evolved, and they’re operating a fine-tuned family machine. Parents are busy juggling many different needs and schedules; there’s not time left in the day to overindulge one child or sweat the small stuff.
The youngest, or “baby” of the family, has the attention of parents and older siblings from infancy to adulthood. Because of the constant interaction, they tend to develop greater confidence and are adept at getting others to do things for them. Youngest-born children are often creative and good problem-solvers. They can also feel invincible because no one in the family lets them fail.
Parenting with birth order in mind
Birth order personality traits are not absolute, and studies don't tell the whole story. Indeed, the examples given above are general and stereotypes at best.
However, there’s enough science behind birth order personality traits to lend some insights into why you, your siblings or your children respond differently to situations. Perhaps it explains challenging family dynamics or can serve as a reminder to adapt your parenting style to each child. Embrace the fact they look at life through their unique lenses, and celebrate their diverse strengths and challenges.
Ask an expert
If you have questions about how birth order might affect you or your children, and your relationships with others, talk to a professional. You can find a Providence psychologist in your area by searching our directory.