Understanding Birth Order

Dr. Susan S. Bartell

The topic of birth order seems to generate more questions than just about any other issue in families with more than one child. Although there is great interest in the way birth order impacts on children, it continues to be a confusing area for many people. I will therefore be writing a series of articles for Having Another Baby on this topic. This, the first in the series, presents an overview of birth order concerns and questions. In the following months, articles will appear, discussing each birth order position in detail, including how to understand specific birth order dynamics and difficulties.

What exactly is Birth Order?

Many people have heard the term “birth order” without understanding fully what it means, so let’s start with a basic definition. Birth order refers to the position in the family that a child occupies at the time he or she is born. A child can be the oldest, the middle, the youngest or anywhere in between. Of course, the possibilities are endless, but in general, the most frequently studied birth positions are oldest, middle and youngest. These are the most common because a great percentage of parents have two or three children. This does not mean that being an only child, or being from a larger family doesn’t matter, of course it does! In fact, interestingly, many first-born children have similar personalities to only children (probably because they are both ‘only’ for a time.) Furthermore, youngest children often have predictable personality traits no matter how many older siblings they have. However, it is true that in much larger families, birth order issues can become more complex and difficult to understand.

Why are my children so different?

“I don’t understand how my children can be so different when they’re being raised in exactly the same way, by the same parents!” If this sounds like a familiar phrase, you’re not alone. It is difficult to understand how children in the same home, with the same parents and having generally the same life-experiences can be so different. However, there are other factors that impact on a child’s personality. All children are born with a genetically predetermined temperament. Having the same parents does not guarantee similar temperaments among siblings. Whether a child is quiet, outgoing, creative, shy, moody, active or fearful is rooted in the child’s temperament and this will effect the way he or she interacts with other people. Temperament will also impact on the way a child copes with stressful situations or adversity. But although temperament is “built in”, it is definitely affected by life experiences, including family, friends and other positive and negative life events. It is therefore important not to “assign” roles or expectations to a child based upon very early personality traits. For example, a mom may experience a baby as “difficult”, but if she assigns this trait to the child for the rest of his life, he may become a difficult child because he’s heard himself called that so often, rather than because it’s truly his personality.

So where does Birth Order fit in?

Birth order is one of the important life experiences that helps to mold a child’s personality. There are two reasons for this. First, although parents think they treat their children in exactly the same way, they actually have different expectations for them, reactions to them and interactions with them, depending on the child’s birth position. Second, children have differing views of themselves depending upon when they were born and who comes before and/or after them. In fact, the ways in which a child relates to parents and siblings (and also to other significant caretakers) and the way these people relate to the child are developed starting at the very beginning of a child’s life. These patterns of relating become the blueprint for all future interactions the child has with people inside and outside the family. It is therefore crucial that parents not only understand the emotional and behavioral patterns related to birth order, but that they learn how to manage their children accordingly in supportive and nurturing ways.

What is your birth position?

This may come as a surprise, but parents often treat their children differently depending upon their own birth position in their childhood family. Kathy, for example was the oldest child in her family and because her mother worked she always felt responsible for her three younger sisters. She remembered resenting the burden, so now, as a mother Kathy adamantly refuses to give her oldest daughter any responsibility for anything, even if Annie wants it. Margaret, on the other hand, the youngest in her family of origin, loved being “babied” by her parents and grandparents. But she remembers hating it when her siblings called her a spoiled brat and she felt uncomfortable that they resented her favored position. Margaret doesn’t want Brian, her youngest, labeled a brat so she tries to never show him favoritism. She admits that sometimes she’s actually too hard on him because she doesn’t want him or his brother and sister to feel that he gets special treatment because he’s the youngest. These stories help illustrate that it is important to become aware of the way your birth position may affect the way you parent your children. Whether you felt comfortable, jealous, resentful or happy with the way you were treated by your parents and siblings, it will impact on how you treat each of your children. If your older brother bullied you, you may do your best to protect your youngest from bullying, even if perhaps he instigates it. If you were the favored child you may unwittingly favor your child in the same birth position.

How are children affected?

If you reflect upon the impact that your childhood family has on your interactions with your own children, you will open the door to understanding your current family. You will see that your children’s responses to you and to each other are at least in part, based upon how they feel about their place in the family and the way they are treated by their parents and by each other. This is because children sense that their parents treat them differently from one another, even if it’s subtle. If a child feels favored because she’s the youngest she may behave less respectfully to parents and siblings, knowing there will be no serious consequences. If an oldest child feels more frequently blamed than other children in the family, he may begin to lie in order to avoid trouble or try and pass the blame on to a sibling. If a child feels that all the attention is now given to a younger sibling, she may behave badly in order to be noticed. If a child believes that a sibling is favored, he may become jealous, hostile and resentful towards that sibling. But if a child feels secure, safe and loved in the family, no matter what his or her birth position, then rivalry, anger and acting out will be minimal, transient and easily managed by conscientious parents.

You now have a better understanding of the general birth order issues that can impact on children, regardless of their birth position. But depending upon the child’s actual position in the order of the family, a variety of expected personality and behavioral traits may emerge. In the following months, we will take a look at the different birth order positions to try and further understand the ways in which we can meet the psychological and emotional needs of our children.

Your Oldest Child

Have you ever wondered why children in the same family often turn out so different from each other? After all, parents try to provide each with the same love, discipline, education, experiences and challenges. What’s more, most children are even genetically similar. Of course human beings are complex and many factors are responsible for the differences between siblings. But as we discussed in Part I of the Birth Order series, a powerful part of the answer comes from the child’s position in the family. And even more importantly, I believe, is how the child’s parents interact with him or her, depending on this birth order position.

This article will take a look at the oldest child in the family. How does being the first born impact a child and how does his or her personality evolve? As for parenting-despite your best efforts to raise your children equally, it is practically impossible to avoid the effects of birth order. Knowing this, what can a parent do to raise the happiest, most well adjusted oldest child possible? Keep reading and you’ll find out…

One and only

Before becoming the oldest, your first born child is an only child (except, of course, for twins). No matter how long this only-child status lasts, it has a significant impact on the child. This is because the majority of parents bond with their first child in a very intense way. They focus all their attention on the child, dote on him or her and watch the achievement of every milestone with great anticipation and satisfaction. Then suddenly, there is a new baby in the house. Of course you’re thrilled and maybe your older child is too. But, for your child this also represents the first real loss in his or her life. It is the loss of mom and dad’s (and maybe grandparents) undivided devotion. For some children the adjustment is easy and for others it is more difficult. But for all children, this change is dramatically life-altering and therefore, personality shaping.

Some first-born children are relieved, because prior to the new baby their parents may have been unknowingly smothering and anxious-after all this was their first child. These older children now have the chance to spread their wings and become a bit more independent and less watched by the grown-ups. But for other children the adjustment makes them clingy and worried about separation from mom or dad. It is important for parents to realize that the clinging or difficulty with separation, has to do with a fear of losing mom and dad to the baby. The symptoms may surface immediately, or not for many months (and in a few cases, years.) If parents respond reassuringly, allowing the child a period of extra closeness and attention, he or she will eventually be fine. But if a parent continues to push an oldest child towards independence and separation, he or she could develop a more significant and lasting difficulty with separation. Some first-borns develop this even if their parents are very sensitive to their emotional needs. This is due simply to the unavoidable loss of their parents’ undivided love and attention. Of course, this is not to say that you should not have more children. All children can be helped to cope with the change and separation, given time and patience. We just can’t always predict how long this might take. But, if your child doesn’t seem to outgrow separation difficulties by five or six years (e.g. trouble going to sleep, unable to visit friends without you, frequent visits to the school nurse, excessive crying when you go out at night) you should consider speaking with a counselor/therapist who specializes in childhood issues.

Achievement and frustration

Many hopes and dreams are placed on the shoulders of a first born child whether he or she knows it or not, and whether parents realize what they are doing. The strong desire of parents to have their child succeed is felt full-force by the oldest child, but only in a diluted way by additional children. Since children internalize all messages conveyed by their parents (even if you don’t realize you’re communicating a message), many oldest children, in an attempt to live up to their parents expectations, become conscientious, high-achieving children who excel in school and sports. They then become high-powered, high-achieving adults who are not satisfied unless they are at the top. Of course these can be wonderful personality traits, enabling a child to be productive and proud. But at times, a parent might put too much pressure on a child to succeed, which can be very difficult for the child, causing stress in their relationship.

Even when parents don’t have high expectations, some first-borns put pressure on themselves because they feel they owe it to their parents. But when, inevitably, they aren’t “the best” at something, they may put themselves down (“I’m dumb”, “I’ll never get it right”) or blame someone else for their failure (“It’s the coaches fault”, “The test was too hard”). To help your child strive for success without feeling like a failure along the way, parents need to be aware that their expectations can adversely affect their oldest child. Also, if a child shows signs of consistent frustration, anxiety or rage in the face of failure, parents need to help this child recognizes that failure, as well as not always being the very best, is a necessary and acceptable part of life.

The Boss

Many first-borns are labeled by siblings, friends and parents, as bossy, or “trying to be a parent”. Indeed, children may even assume this role because their parents unknowingly empower them. When a parent asks an older sibling to “watch the baby for a few minutes,” “show your little brother how to brush his teeth” or “tell your sister and brother to stop fighting”, the message heard by the child is that the parent wants him or her to assume a parenting role. Children are not necessarily able to recognize the boundaries on this role. They may become “over-parentified” (acting too much like mom or dad)-worrying about younger siblings to an extreme or trying to care for them even when an adult is present.

If you have a slightly bossy oldest child, you can teach him or her that “its great to help out, but that doesn’t make you a parent”. Parents can also help oldest children develop skills of cooperation and compromise by teaching it gently while their child is still young. By encouraging group activities and by stressing the importance of siblings helping each other (rather than only the oldest helping the youngest) your oldest child will be less likely to develop a troubling need for superiority over others.

Some oldest children also slip into this role with peers. They may try to boss their friends around or brag about being the smartest or the best. To avoid this becoming a big problem, which could result in a child having trouble with friends, parents can tactfully (without punishment) help a child recognize that other kids don’t like it when someone is too bossy or controlling.

As an adult, being a bit “bossy” or ” controlling might very well be useful in the working world. So first-borns will often make excellent supervisors, directors and real bosses. On the other hand, this same personality trait may be a hindrance on the way up, because these oldest siblings, who aren’t used to being the youngest or least experienced in the group, don’t like to be told what to do by those in charge. Grown up oldest children may work well independently, but not perhaps not be great team players. If they can’t be the leaders of the team, they may lock horns with superiors. Of course, if you help your oldest child to become a good team player when they are still young, this is less likely to be a significant concern.

Your first and oldest child is a wonderful blessing and always holds an incredibly special place in your heart. He or she is also, in some ways, your first experiment in parenting. You may make mistakes along the way. But as long as you keep learning and correct your mistakes, your child will be fine. Children are extremely resilient and as long as we make our children a priority in our lives and parent them with all our love, they will forgive our mistakes.

Your Youngest Child

This is the third in the series of articles about birth order. As we discussed in the previous two articles, the place a child holds in the family can impact on that child’s self-image and also help create parts of his or her personality. In addition it can affect the way in which you or others interact with the child. If you haven’t read the first two articles in this series (the first is an overview of birth order, and the second is a discussion of the oldest child) it would probably be a good idea to do so before reading this article. They can be found by clicking on the “other articles” tab on the menu…

Your feelings about your final child

In many different ways, the youngest child holds an interesting place in the family. Whether your youngest child is the second of two, or the last of eight children, most parents experience a strong feeling knowing this will be their last child. For some parents this feeling is sadness, for others it is relief. For still others it could be anxiety or even anger if they had wanted more children than this, but can’t or won’t have more for medical, emotional, financial or family related reasons. These feelings can impact on the way a parent treats a youngest child. For example, if you know you can’t have any more children, you may treat your youngest with extra patience, or foster a sense of “babyhood” for longer than is necessary. This could impact on other members of the family, as well as on the child. In addition, depending upon your own place in your family’s birth order, you may have great empathy for your youngest child (if you were the youngest) or you may harbor some impatience or resentment (if you were the oldest).

Your baby’s behaviors

As the “baby” of the family, the youngest child may find him or herself the center of everyone’s attention. This will undoubtedly affect the way the child feels and behaves. Many youngest children grow up to be attention seekers, enjoying activities, jobs and relationships in which they can shine. In fact, some youngest children find it difficult when they are not the center of attention. They may act out, sulk, cry or have a tantrum in order to get attention-which can be frustrating if it is someone else’s turn to be in the spotlight. This may continue even after a child grows into adulthood, but then it won’t be as obviously linked to sibling rivalry.

Some youngest siblings are blatantly indulged simply because they are the youngest. Parents feel that this is their last chance to lavish a child not only with attention, but with all manner of material things and activities. It is then, not hard to imagine that some youngest children become spoiled and their behavior is, of course, affected by this. They find it difficult when they don’t get what they want and grow into what people outside of the family will, not very subtly (but truthfully), refer to as “spoiled brats.”

Since they are used to being around lots of people, and have done so since birth, many youngest children are very social and enjoy being around people as much as possible. This can be trying at times for parents as youngest children may be very demanding of your time if there is not other child around to play with, or keep them occupied. However, it’s hard to argue with having a child who is outgoing, friendly and chatty, even if it is exhausting some of the time.

In order to gain attention, and firmly establish their place in the family, youngest children need to be able to find unique ways to identify themselves. For this reason, they are frequently risk-takers and rebels. You may experience your youngest child as feisty and a bit of a smart aleck. This is his or her way of reminding you that being the youngest doesn’t mean being the most invisible. Fortunately, for many youngest children, the “cuteness” factor outweighs the potential for being annoying.

For many parents, by the time they get to the youngest (even of two) they feel they have “mastered” being a parent. They are therefore more relaxed and less anxious. Needless to say, this affects the way they parent the youngest child in comparison to older children. Youngest children typically experience a greater sense of independence and freedom. Although, since they have one or more “mothers” and “fathers” disguised as older siblings, this doesn’t necessarily mean they behave more independently. In fact, some youngest children don’t want to be too independent because it will mean giving up that special place as the baby, which they so enjoy. They therefore allow their parents and older siblings to take care of and do things for them that they are actually capable of doing for themselves. This may or may not be a bad thing depending upon its severity and how everyone else in the family feels about it.

As with every child, your youngest will be challenging at times and, of course, wonderful at other times. As long as you do your best to learn about your child, make thoughtful parenting decisions and love all your children fully, your children will flourish and thrive happily.

Dr. Bartell is a psychologist and author who specializes in parent-child relationships. She is the Director of Havinganotherbaby.com.