How can two or three children in the same family be so different? They are brought up in the same broad social environment, under a similar set of rules and an identical family value system. They also come from the same genetic pool yet they can be so different in personality, interests and achievement. While they may be born into the same family they are not born into the same position. The effects of their birth position have a significant impact on children, their behavior and their personalities. In order to really understand children it is useful to look at how their position in the family impacts on their development.
If we look at the big three in birth order – first, middle and youngest – we will notice that children born in each position share a similar set of characteristics. If your child is an only child, they share similar birth order characteristics to first borns – they are super first borns.
First borns are often more motivated to achieve than later borns. A greater percentage of first borns end up in the professions such as medicine and law. They go for jobs where determination, strong powers of concentration and discipline are valued. First borns are born into a pressured yet treasured position. They are usually the objects of great delight in a family – they are the first. Parents and grandparents often overdo everything with first borns. There is an air of expectancy even before their birth. Names are chosen half way through the pregnancy and photo albums are filled as baby’s every special moment is captured on film. They are the centre of attention, which is an obvious plus if you are a first-born child.
The flipside to this adulation is that first borns are coached, prodded and pushed to perform. The expectations are high for first borns, particularly first-born boys, so pressure is something they know all about. It is no coincidence that anecdotal evidence suggest that first born males tend to be lower risk-takers as learners than girls, or those in other birth positions. First-born boys fear failure so they often steer away from areas where they can’t excel. Interestingly, some first borns confuse excellence with perfectionism and won’t try unless they can do the perfect job. These kids drive their parents and teachers nuts as they just won’t move out of their comfort zones to take a few risks and even (shock, horror) mess up. This is first-born thing.
First borns are trailblazers for parents and for the children to follow. Parents are usually hardest on their first borns in terms of discipline and they loosen up as they move further down the family. First borns usually don’t react well to the arrival of the second born. To parents, the arrival of another child means a playmate for their eldest. To the first born, the arrival of another child means only one thing – DETHRONEMENT. You can read the headlines: “The emperor loses his crown.” Well not quite. The first-born child does everything in his or her power to retain the favoured first position. He will point out the failings of the second born to his parents.
According to Kevin Leman author of The New Birth Order Book there are two types of first borns. The first are the compliant nurturers and caregivers. These children love to please and also love to do well in school as they have a high need for mum or dad’s approval. They also like to look after and care for other children. These compliant nurturers are more likely to be girls. Parents often rely heavily on their first borns and let them take much of the responsibility around the home.
The second types of first borns are the aggressive movers and shakers. These children are assertive, achievement-oriented and strong-willed. They are often boys who have the drive, but not the skills, to be effective leaders. Their bull-in-a-China-shop approach doesn’t always endear them to others.
The middle child
The middle (and in all likelihood the second) child is influenced by his elder sibling. The one rule of thumb about birth order is that children are directly influenced by the sibling above and will differ from that sibling. Frank Sulloway, the author of Born To Rebel, puts it succinctly, when he says that the first rule of the sibling road is that first and second borns will be different in personality, interests and achievement. Generally, the middle or second will be what the first-born isn’t. If the first born is responsible the next in line may well be a pest. If the first born is serious, as they often are, the second borns may well be easy-going and gregarious.
Middle born children are victims of bad timing. Born too late to get the perks and privileges of being born first but too early to get the easy ride that youngest receive, middles often feel squeezed between these two siblings and wonder, “Why me?” or “Its not fair!” The positive side to middle borns is that as they are squeezed between two siblings, they are good negotiators and generally develop an adept set of people skills. They are often more flexible as their lives tend to fit in more with the first born. This flexibility combined with the likelihood of having expectations grounded in reality gives them a significant lead in the resilience stakes over their siblings. Also they tend to spend more time with children away from their family to avoid the frustration of being an outsider in the family. Middle children subsequently can end up with more friends (and more social connections) than their elder siblings.
Middle born children, particularly if they are surrounded by other boys often become the free spirit or the child most likely to upset (annoy, hassle) his siblings. If you have three children sitting quietly watching television and you suddenly hear a yelp coming from the television room you can bet that the middle child has disturbed the peace in some way. Perhaps he has thumped the youngest or flicked the eldest with a ruler or some foreign object. Middles can be like that! They like to get even!
Parents need to be aware of the need to make middle children feel SPECIAL. Take photos of just them, and not the whole pack. Make sure you spend time with just them. Help them find their special talent that they don’t share with their siblings (that should be easy as they often stand apart).
Youngest children in the family are typically charmers and manipulators. They love to get their own way – and they invariably do. They are in the fortunate position of having a sibling break their parents in for them and they don’t have the pressures of the first born. Their birth is not the big event as was the first born’s arrival.
Youngest are often babied, spoiled, affectionate, outgoing and uncomplicated. The pressure is off the last borns in terms of having to meet their parents’ high expectations so they are more likely to achieve in their own ways. Creative, artistic pursuits tend to be filled with last born children, whereas firstborns are more likely to end up in positions of leadership. One of the traits many last borns share is persistence. They learn when they are young that if they persist with what they want they will outlast their siblings and wear their parents down eventually. Persistence is a characteristic that pays off for this group.
Last borns tend to be more impetuous – they act now and worry about the repercussions later. The positive is that they are more likely to stretch themselves and try new experiences than their siblings. The negative aspect for boys is that their tendency to jump first and think later on can be downright dangerous. Youngest born girls can often be babied and have their parents jumping through hoops to satisfy them.
Last borns can appear a little self-centred, which is probably due to the fact that they tend to do less at home to help others. There are bigger, more capable siblings at home to take all the responsibilities so youngest children can easily grow up with an ‘I’m here to be served’ attitude. It is important to give youngest borns plenty of opportunities to help around the home.
The position a child has in his or her family, is a predictor only of personality, but a powerful predictor nonetheless. It is definitely a factor that parents need to consider as we look for ways to raise happy, well-adjusted and confident children.
For more on birth order, check out my book Why First Borns Rule the World and Why Last Borns Want to Change It. Great for parents to also understand their own birth order position and how that impacts their parenting!