Is there any real truth that birth order plays a significant role in shaping who we are? Are first-borns really natural leaders? Are middle kids as harmony-oriented and diplomatic as we think? Does the baby of the family get away with murder? JUSTINE CARBERY examines the research …
Sibling rivalry and birth hierarchy have been well documented over the years, starting with the Bible, where it’s alleged that first-born Cain murdered his younger brother Abel (an extreme case of sibling rivalry). The Boleyn sisters fought for King Henry VIII’s favour (in a contemporary less murderous take, brother and sister fight over the same guy in Coke’s new ad). Celebrity brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher have been known to engage in very public sibling bust-ups, as do many of the Kardashian/Jenner clan. And in the political sphere, Jo Johnson, younger brother of the UK’s controversial prime minister, was content to take a back seat until recently when he opposed his brother’s stance on Brexit and, in a shock move, resigned his seat, saying he was “torn between family and the national interest.”
We are acutely aware of our place in the family, and often when we get together as adults, we find ourselves reverting to those roles. I know I do; old habits die hard. When we look around at friends and family we all recognise the stereotypes. Only children can’t share. First-borns are bossy, middle children the peacemakers, and the youngest child gets away with everything. What was the situation in your family when you were growing up? Can you relate to this premise? Were you the responsible one, the clown, the sensitive one, the scholar, the athlete? Mr Social, Little Miss Perfect? For centuries, psychologists, philosophers and pretty much anyone with a family has argued that birth order shapes personality. But is it really true that your birth position can drive your disposition and behaviour?
The idea that the person we become is partly defined by the order in which we come in our family was first proposed by Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler (best known for developing the theory of the inferiority complex) in the early 1920s. Adler believed that sibling hierarchy has a profound effect on our personalities, and could influence everything from the career choices we make to the people we fall in love with. And American psychologist Frank J Sulloway, who, in the mid-1990s, combed history books for examples of leading figures who were firstborns and later-born rebels, saw a similar trend. Lateral thinkers and revolutionaries, such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi were all later-born. Leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini first-borns. His explanation? Every child occupies a certain niche within the family and then uses his or her own strategies to master life. First-born and single children have less reason to be upset with the status quo and they often adopt the attitudes of their fathers and mothers. Younger siblings are less sure of their parents’ worldview and therefore more often choose alternative paths in life. Although Adler’s and Solloway’s theories have been challenged over the years, there are certain characteristics and life choices that seem remarkably consistent in oldest, middle, youngest and only children.
Only children occupy a special place. They enjoy the full attention of their parents for their entire lives, and do not have to share resources such as their parents’ time or money with anyone. Not only do they get more attention, they typically have adults rather than peers for company, and are consequently more confident, conscientious and socially mature. But sometimes they can be more rigid and rule-bound, always concerned with “getting it right” and “being right”. Without any siblings to compete with, the only child monopolises his parents’ attention and resources – not just for a short period of time like a first-born, but forever. In effect, this makes an only child something like a “super-first-born”. Famous uber-first-borns include Shakespeare, Einstein, Churchill, Saddam Hussein, Leonardo da Vinci and Tiger Woods.
Then a new baby comes along! The only child is de-throned and becomes the eldest of two. As the eldest they tend to be very responsible, “the good child”. Eldest children are often natural leaders, and their role at work may reflect this. More than half of US presidents were first or only children. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are first-borns. Virtually every astronaut who has gone into space is a first-born, as well as most Nobel prize winners.
Because they are more likely to have authority over younger siblings, they have a tendency to be bossy and want things to be done their way. They can be perfectionists and worriers, and may put pressure on themselves to succeed. Basking in their parents’ presence, they become diligent, wanting to excel at everything. “Many parents spend more time reading and explaining things to first-borns. It’s not as easy when other kids come into the picture,” says Frank Farley, PhD, a psychologist at Temple University, in Philadelphia, who has studied personality and human development for decades. “That undivided attention may have a lot to do with why firstborns tend to be overachievers,” he explains.
Every child occupies a certain niche within the family and then uses his or her own strategies to master life
But success comes with a price: first-borns tend to be type A personalities who never cut themselves any slack. They often have an intense fear of failure, so nothing they accomplish feels good enough. And because they dread making a mistake, oldest kids tend to stick to the straight and narrow.
Second-born children must accommodate the fact that there is always someone ahead of them. They are never going to come first within the family and hence look elsewhere for companionship. As such, they are often more relaxed and sociable as a result, more likely to try different activities, try new things. They may have more friends and are generally considered to be happier.
Middle children are usually adaptable, diplomatic and good at bringing people together. They know all about compromise. Having this under their belt means they can go with the flow better than first or last born children. They learn to negotiate between the two – by any means necessary. “Middle-borns are the most willing to wheel and deal,” notes Sulloway. “As a result of literally being in the middle of most sibling disputes, many middle children learn to become patient, diplomatic, good listeners, and able to see arguments from multiple sides. Their voice is rarely the loudest – but often the most persuasive.” Not surprisingly, middle kids score higher in agreeableness than both their older and younger siblings. Born into a world of sharing, they learn collaboration skills easily, and are more likely to effect change more than any other birth order, according to Katrin Schumann,
co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children.
However, because their place in the family hierarchy changes from youngest to middle, they struggle to establish a clear role for themselves, and many go through a period of rebellion. They often wonder where they fit in. The middle child often feels left out, with a sense of,“Well, I’m not the oldest. I’m not the youngest. Who am I?” This sort of hierarchical floundering leads middle children to seek connection with their peers, since parental attention is usually devoted to the beloved first-born or baby of the family. They tend to be the first to want to sleep at a friend’s house, go off on school trips, overnight activities. Even parents themselves admit that sometimes the middle child gets a bit lost in the family. A survey by TheBabyWebsite.com, a British parenting resource, found that a third of parents with three children admit to giving their middle child far less attention than they give the other two. On the plus side, middle children tend to hold fairness and justice in high esteem, counting Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela among their ranks, and their willingness to compromise also leads middles to be happier in marriage, according to an Israeli happiness study.
Because parents are unpracticed with their eldest, they tend to be uptight with them, a trait that can rub off on the child. But by the time they get to their youngest, parents know what they are doing, so that child benefits because the parents are calmer, more laidback. Plus, because the parents’ attention is divided, the youngest child tends to get away with more. The rules for the youngest child are much more flexible. As a result of their easy-going nature, youngest children are often charming and humorous. According to a recent YouGov study, youngest children are the funniest sibling in the family, so it’s no surprise Billy Crystal, Goldie Hawn, Jim Carrey, and Steve Martin are all youngest children.
Youngest children are known to be good at getting their own way, indulged even. Older siblings often complain of how spoilt the baby of the family can be, how they get away with murder, due to their parents’ increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards parenting. Parents often coddle the littlest when it comes to chores and rules, failing to hold them to the same standards as their siblings. This may mean fewer responsibilities and more opportunities for fun. But also resentment among older siblings.
However, youngest children often find that they aren’t taken as seriously or given the independence they crave. They want to grow up in a hurry, hate not being seen as capable as older siblings. One time a woman came on the radio complaining that, because she was the youngest in a large family, no one would take her seriously. She protested that her views were always ignored or laughed off. “And how old are you, pet?” inquired Gerry Ryan, the interviewer. “I’m 72,” was the reply. Some things never change. My brother is six years older than me, and when we get together we fall easily into old established roles. He always looked out for me, and even though I’m a strong, fiercely independent woman, I soften in his presence, allow myself to be minded, cared for. But I bristle when he tries to boss me around. Old habits die hard. My friend Claire reels off the list of her cousins in a family of seven, starting with the eldest and ending with Baby James. Baby James is 47 and a fireman with his own family, but he will only ever be regarded by everyone as Baby James.
Not surprisingly, middle kids score higher in agreeableness than both their older and younger siblings. Born into a world of sharing, they learn collaboration skills easily
For some youngest children, none of their accomplishments seem original. Their siblings have already learned to talk, read, and ride a bike. They are always playing catch-up, always coming last, and so they often branch out, rebel as a way of distinguishing themselves from older brothers and sisters. Of all the siblings, they’re usually the ones singled out as troublemakers, irresponsible, attention-hungry, get-away-with-anything brats, as well as being the easy, gullible targets for older siblings’ pranks. But research on birth order has found that youngest children really aren’t all that bad. Science shows they are way more fun to be around. With big personalities and a penchant for entertainment, last-borns are the family’s grand finale.
And what about twins? How does birth order play into their equation? Does being just a minute older than your sister or brother give you “oldest” personality traits? Some twins resent that labelling. One twin I spoke to remembers being furious with her twin because she came out first. She felt she was always playing catch-up. She even claimed she could remember her sister pushing her out of the way to get pole birth position! A mother of triplets I spoke to noticed how each of them quickly carved out their own niche, grabbing a position not taken by the other. When they walked to school one would race ahead, one would lag behind and the third would stay by her side. But despite anecdotal evidence there is little empirical proof that being delivered first or second has any lasting impact on one’s psychological outcome. Any stereotypical personality development peters out with age.
Up to now all this research revolved around the nuclear family of three or four children. But society is ever-changing. What about blended families? Does birth order come into play here? In the case of divorce, remarriage, and the melding of stepchildren, Dr Leman says, “blended families don’t blend; they collide.” First-born children who used to be the leader of the pack may find themselves unceremoniously thrown off the top of the hill by an older step sibling, and the youngest of the family may suddenly have to deal with all the attention that’s now directed towards the new baby. But despite a child’s new position in a blended family hierarchy, studies have shown that the child will not tailor his existing personality to his new position unless he is still an infant.
And what happens if you are the eldest until adulthood, until suddenly you’re not anymore? What happens if your premier status is toppled by the sudden appearance of an until-now-unknown adoptive sibling? My friend was well into her thirties, the eldest of two girls, when she found out she had an older sister, who had been adopted at birth. Research says that the impact of changing roles is most felt when children are younger and less sure of themselves. In my friend’s case, gaining a new sister has been a very positive experience, even if she can no longer claim the title of Eldest Sister.
And this is borne out by the research. Recent studies suggest that the differences between oldest, middle and youngest siblings have more to do with nurture than nature. Scientists who analysed large, trans-national data found the effect of sibling order on personality disappears almost completely in adult life. “It is quite possible that the position in the sibling sequence shapes the personality – but not in every family in the same way,” says Frank Spinath, a psychologist at Saarland University in Germany. Studies show that parents react sensitively to the innate temperament of their offspring and adapt their upbringing accordingly. Actual measurable differences in income level, happiness in life etc did not bear out in the long run.
It is quite possible that you may look at your own families and disagree with this recent research, proving that there is no systemic impact of birth order on personality. Or, you may look at your brothers and sisters or your own children and see definite stereotypical patterns. I’ll finish with the words of another friend of mine, Liz, who comes from a family of six siblings. Do you think your family falls into stereotypical birth order patterns I asked? “Absolutely,” she said. “Youngest gets away with murder, eldest girl acts the mammy, and I’m ‘the escaper’, tucked in the middle!”
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