The Significance of Birth Order

It’s a well-known story. A child is alone, enjoying his parent’s attention. Then, the second one comes along and the first-born feels abandoned and angry. The second child feels that they never had their parent’s attention just to themselves as the first-born did, since they always had to share it with the older sibling. The two battle, each in a slightly different way. And then the last child comes along and gets spoiled much more then any of the older siblings.


The only child is also spoiled, selfish and a loner.  These are some of the stereotypes we all know very well. And you probably know these first hand in dealing with your siblings. It’s just another theory like horoscopes that we do find a lot of truth in, but also don’t take it that seriously. But birth order psychology believes that there is more to this; that the order in which we are born has a far larger significance and impact on who we are.   These differences outweigh other differences such as gender.

Many well known thinkers have paid a lot of attention to this subject: like Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, to list a few. Psychologists hinted on the significance birth order has and made numerous studies and experiments to find out what exactly the impacts are. Recently, Frank Sulloway confronted this subject in his book Born to Rebel. Sulloway differentiates only first-borns, which includes an only child and later-borns. While scientists may differ in some ways, these are the overall reoccurring themes in birth order psychology:


 Birth order – first-borns


First borns are often more dominant, critical, assertive and ambitious. First-borns will more likely get into a prestigious school and do well academically. Some scientists even say first borns may have a higher IQ, but this could also be because parents may invest more in first borns and spend more time studying with them.  Yes, a new research claims that first-borns are the favorites among parents, however many have argued this. Sulloway says that most American presidents and other leaders were first borns, as they are ambitious, focused and well organized. They are also more conservative, narrow minded and anxious then their younger siblings. Oldest siblings are the most likely to settle down and be in a long-term relationship as they are very family-oriented. Adler described first-borns frustration by being “dethroned” by their younger sibling.

If the fist born stays first born – and will be an only child, he will never be “dethroned” and will not have to enter sibling rivalry.  Only children are often more mature since they grow up with adults, but may have a hard time separating from their parents. Because they are used to growing up alone, they may be loners as adults or at least be able to handle loneliness way better then people with siblings. Only children are described as perfectionists, afraid of failure, careful or high achievers (similar traits to first-borns).


 Birth order  – middle child


Middle children and all later borns are considered to be more creative, innovative and rebellious. Sulloway claims that in history, revolutionists tend to be later-borns. Middle children compete their older and younger sibling and may act out in order to get attention. Middle children are defined as mysterious, adaptive and less connected (they feel left out). They are often very open to new ideas and have liberal views. Middle children often feel left out and sometimes tend to reject their family, just so they don’t get rejected themselves.  Since their position in their family feels fragile and unidentified, their friends are that much more important to them.  They are also very secretive, less decisive and sometimes base their decision on whether it’s an opposite of the first-born decision (“born to rebel”).  Middle children are able to look at things from different perspectives – they are empathetic. They are thus called peacemakers and try to resolve conflicts of others even though they avoid conflicts themselves. Because they feel they are less loved or receive less attention, they are great fighters for justice.


Birth order – youngest child


Often stereotyped as the spoiled ones, the youngest children are usually very friendly, open, fun loving and adventurous. The youngest ones are often very charming, using this to their advantage – they can be manipulative and are said to be great salesmen.  They tend to be the most successfully socially and have the highest self-esteem of all siblings. Financially, they are often irresponsible and can be selfish.  Youngest children love the spotlight and often have other members of their family wrapped around their finger. What may bother them though, is when parents overlook their achievements since they have seen them a number of times before with their older children. For an attention loving youngest child, this could be very frustrating.  Youngest children often leave responsibility for their actions to their older siblings, and thus have a problem establishing their independency later on.


These are the general, mostly consistent descriptions of the personality effects of birth order. Remember that other factors play in as well. For example, what the gender of the siblings are (same sex siblings rivalry could be slightly different then opposite-sex rivalry). Also, how much apart are the siblings (A 6 year gap could create a new generation of first-borns) and how big the family is?. All these and other factors also play in the larger picture.  However it is important to keep in mind what order your children are in and take it into consideration when you evaluate their behavior. Its good to take birth order into consideration while dealing with your children as soon as possible, so your children can overcome their possible (pre-determined) personal conflicts as well as they can.



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