Birth Order and Personality
by Mommy MD Guide Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH
If you’ve ever wondered why your children are the way they are, you don’t have to look much farther than your family structure. Of all the factors that shape your child’s personality, her birth order might have the greatest and longest-lasting effect.
Alfred Adler, father of birth order psychology, sparked tremendous interest in the role that birth order plays in personality development. He and his predecessors observed consistent characteristics among firstborn, middle, youngest, and only children. Only children don’t really have a birth order, and so are the recipients of mixed blessings. They have the undivided attention of their doting parents, and they never have to compete for attention or affection. But onlies miss out on invaluable experiences: They don’t learn to form sibling alliances or rivalries. As a result, they often have trouble relating to their peers, and they tend to prefer the company of people who are either much older or younger.
Because lonely only children often yearn for companionship, the friendships they form are typically cherished and long lasting. Onlies are usually successful in their endeavors. They’ve never been challenged by siblings, and they aren’t accustomed to failure. They’re used to having things their way, and they tend to be meticulous perfectionists.
Firstborn children are often similar to only children—at least until the arrival of the next brother or sister. Like only children, they grow up under a high-powered parental microscope: their every action is scrutinized and analyzed, and subsequently praised or denounced. Beginner parents often have great expectations for their offspring, and they might inadvertently mold them into serious, cautious, and obedient little adults. Because their every achievement is new and exciting for mom and dad, firstborns tend to be supremely self-confident. They’re superior to their siblings in size and strength; and they feel comfortable with power and like being in charge. Because firstborns are used to ruling the roost and enforcing the rules, they can be bossy and domineering at times.
Like only children, firstborns are success-oriented. As adults, they usually choose careers that reward their precise, perfectionistic natures; including those in science, medicine, accounting, and engineering. Of the first 23 astronauts launched into outer space, 21 were firstborn or only children.
Youngest children have a special place in the family. Unlike their older siblings, they never suffer the agony of being dethroned by a new bundle of joy. By the time they make their entrance, the role of each family member is firmly established in the lineup, and their world is stable, safe, and secure. Babies of the family usually get plenty of love and affection, but they never seem to get what they want most: respect. Being the weakest and the “dumbest” of all the children, they’re never really taken seriously, and they can grow up feeling a bit inferior. It seems that no one is terribly impressed with their accomplishments. Their siblings have already done it all, and their weary parents have already seen it all.
Youngest children often yearn for recognition, and they strive to prove themselves worthy, at any cost. If they can’t compete with their siblings academically or physically, they often search for more radical ways to get attention. They might end up being the class clown or the school delinquent, and they tend to choose careers that reward creativity or showmanship. Because they might feel that they made an impact on their own families, youngest children long to make a difference in the community, or even the world. Youngest children also tend to stay at home the longest. Finally, they have their parents all to themselves!
Middle children—bless their hearts—come in many varieties, and how they are treated growing up depends on the family structure. The third son in a family of four boys is generally an example of the most unfortunate type of middle child. He might feel as if he has little to set him apart from his brothers, and so he seems to get lost in the shuffle. He’s likely to have the most hand-me-down clothes and the fewest pictures in the family photo album. If the third child happens to be a girl with three brothers, on the other hand, she is a very special middle child, because she has an important feature that sets her apart from the crowd. She might be a middle child, but she’s also the first and only girl. Depending upon how greatly her parents value her uniqueness, she might develop personality traits more like those of a first born or only child.
If middle children don’t have some distinguishing feature, they might grow up feeling a little neglected. They often feel that their parents are too busy praising the first born or coddling the baby to pay them much attention. Middle children tend to have the lowest sense of self-esteem, but they usually end up being best equipped to deal with adult life. They’re used to life’s little injustices, and they know better than to expect any special treatment from the real world. Sandwiched between the domineering firstborn and the demanding baby in the family, middle children learn to be tactful and sensitive. They’re generally excellent listeners, and they know how to compromise. Middle children make good social workers, lawyers, arbitrators, and middle managers.
You can’t do much to change your child’s birth order, but knowing how it shapes her personality can help you understand—and accept—her, just the way she is.