My son (the firstborn) is reserved, a perfectionist, and follows directions to a tee. My daughter (the youngest) is outgoing, fearless, and thinks the world is her stage. However, my son came home from overnight camp with the news that he was voted in as president of his division. My daughter, the social animal, can also spend hours in her room quietly enthralled in a book. How is it possible for them to have such diverse–almost contradictory–personality traits given their birth order? More importantly, is our view of birth order valid or just a myth passed down through generations?
Most of us are familiar with the assumptions about birth order. Firstborns are typically described as high achieving perfectionists who are cautious, controlling, reliable, and conscientious. Middle children are the peacemakers in the group who often get lost in the shuffle. They tend to struggle to define their own unique identity, and they are typically people pleasers with a large circle of friends. Youngest children are fearless, attention-seeking, carefree, and even a bit self-centered and lazy. Yet, they are also charming and well-liked with a flourishing social life. Finally, only children are seen as mature, resourceful, and independent. However, many consider them to be self-absorbed and spoiled, and sometimes unable to get along with others.
The Birth Order Influence
Scientists have been trying to figure out the influence of birth order for over a century. Several psychologists over the years wrote about differences in siblings based on birth order, causing these ideas to become ingrained in our culture. But now, several in-depth studies are challenging their legitimacy.
In 2015, a social psychologist at the University of Houston studied 370,000 high school students and concluded that birth order does not influence the Big Five broad personality traits, including openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Another 2015 study that assessed birth order for 20,000 people in the United States, Germany, and Great Britain found that it did not alter any of the Big Five. A follow-up study in 2017 on more specific characteristics published by the same researcher did not find any effect of birth order, either. Finally, a study published this past March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that birth order does not influence whether someone takes risks in adulthood.
The only characteristic that researchers found based on birth order is that firstborns, on average, have a slightly higher IQ than their younger siblings, and they tend to earn higher academic degrees. Experts believe that this is linked to the amount of time and effort that new parents invest in their first child’s daily education before additional siblings come along. So, it has much more to do with parenting skills than actual birth order.
This is good news because it means that children do not have to succumb to certain expectations in life based on when they arrive in their family. There are so many other factors that play a role in children’s personality and success, including gender; size of family; who raises them; friends and community; other biological influences like genes, illness, and physical traits; their innate temperament; and life experiences.
Another important factor to consider is age. Scientists caution that parents tend to confuse birth order and age. Some personality characteristics that we assume are based on a child’s birth order may have more to do with age. Being conscientious, for example, increases during adolescence into adulthood. So, you may think your youngest child is unfocused and that he is always breaking the rules compared to your oldest child, but in 15 years, that same child could be very conscientious.
It is possible that your family may fit the birth order stereotypes. Sybil Jones, a blogger and mom of three, explains, “I have tween and teen girls. Our firstborn fits the high achiever stereotype and always sets goals. Our middle child is our nurturing peacemaker. She is content with being alone and doing her own thing like reading and studying. Our youngest is confident in herself and doesn’t mince her words one bit.”
Yet, there are just as many examples of families who do not fit the expected mold when it comes to birth order. I know a pair of brothers in which the older one struggles with his career and still relies on his parents in his forties. He even lives a few blocks from them. Yet, his younger brother is completely different. He’s a successful accountant who has three kids and lives several hours away from their parents.
What Parents Can Do
At the end of the day, it’s not the position in the family that impacts who our children become but how we raise them, how others treat them, how they view themselves, and their experiences throughout life. Nobody is locked into a certain fate based on birth order.
According to Andrea Palmer, Licensed Professional Counselor at Baton Rouge Counseling Associates, “It is important to remember that each child is an individual. Do not put them in a box based on birth order. If they fit a traditional stereotype, this may give you a guide to best parent your child, but do not be surprised if they show traits that are outside of that birth order as well. Parent the individual child and do your best to enjoy his or her personality unfolding without expectation.”
Here are some additional tips to ensure that the birth order myth does not hinder your children’s future:
- Spend quality time with each child individually.
- Avoid playing into the birth order myth by expecting them to act like the stereotypes and saying things like “He is a typical first child” or “The forgotten middle child is a real thing.”
- Keep the line of communication open so that children can express their emotions.
- Keep rules consistent. If you give your oldest child a cell phone at age 12, do the same for the other children when they turn that age.
- Encourage your children to work out their own conflicts. ■