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Does Birth Order Matter? Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m curious to know how much of my children’s personalities are due to whether they are the first born, middle child, or the baby. They’re about two and a half years apart. The youngest is almost three. They are reminding me so much of me and my two siblings.

Oldest of Three

Dear OOT,

Alfred Adler popularized his Birth Order Theory in 1964 which coincidently was when many families were raising large broods of the Baby Boom. The theory describes personality traits determined by the order in which each child came into the family. Accordingly, the role a child has played for his parents and siblings can forecast his adult life. 

Adler and other observers ofthe connection between childhood circumstances and lifelong patterns of behavior have noted that firstborns enjoy special treatment by their parents, allowing them to thrive intellectually and to achieve positions of leadership in business or politics.

Please note that birth order theory cannot be applied to every family. Single parenting, step and half-siblings, parents or siblings with health and mental health issues, and multiple births have their influences on family roles. (Twins and other multiples fall into a category of their own!) The theory fits best when one set of parents rears one brood of children without a lot of complications.

Child Number One  

Parents go gaa gaa over their first child. He sleeps! He smiles! He rolls over! He walks! He talks!  Grandparents are notified of each wondrous milestone. Cell phones capture and share countless pictures and videos. When this child first enters school, rides a bike, or spends the night at a friend’s house, his parents experience his incredible achievements as a first for themselves.

Consequently a firstborn expects to be noticed and admired. He can also be the most serious and achievement oriented.

My grandfather was the eldest of twelve children, and as such, he had the responsibility of immigrating to the United States first, and then securing employment for each brother and a husband for each sister when they arrived. He helped scrape together a new life eleven times. Once these duties were fulfilled, he found the proper wife for himself and began his own family. Great expectations are the realm of the firstborn.

A One and Only

The only child is somewhat like the first born. Everything she does is spectacular in her parents’ eyes. Because there are no “spare children,” she may be over-pressured. She is, after all, the one example of her parents’ efforts at parenting. Among several offspring, one may be the athlete, another the scholar, or musician, or adventurer, each reflecting star quality in a different light. The only child may be expected to be great at all things. The only child must carry all the family pride.

With a ratio of two adults to one child, she is easily drawn into the adult world. Compared to families with two or more children, these parents find it pretty easy to include their singleton in many of their activities. An only child goes to more weddings. She sees more of the world – going along to run errands, spending time with parents at work, and taking the just-one-more seat for a European vacation, etc. There can be material advantages in addition to attention when there’s no one to have to share with. This child is comfortable with first class service. 

Child Number Two

A second child comes into a family that already has a child in it. To get anywhere, to get anything, Number Two has to negotiate around or with another child. Sibling Number Two pays close attention to Number One: he teaches, he entertains, sometimes he hurts. The overall lesson of childhood for the second child is that someone else’s thoughts and actions must be considered. The older sibling can be a model of behaviors to imitate as well as behaviors to watch out for. The Second Born learns to predict and react. Social skills – awareness of another’s needs and behavior patterns – are survival skills for the second born. His people skills will serve him well in the future.

The Third or Middle Child

If the first child wins all the glory, and the second child wins all the friends, a third child – or often the middle child – finds a special role in being different. She may find that the only attention left to get is won by being wild or eccentric, or just to keep ’em guessing. Some possible routes to attention: dressing with distinction (wearing boots year round); peculiar habits in eating (separating peas from their skins before eating both); a dramatic flair (adding voices and gestures to retelling the day’s events); an unusual collection or hobby (the first Sousaphone player in the school’s forty-year history). She will always stand out in a crowd – or stand apart from it.

The Last Child

The youngest child is always the baby. Compared to the rest, at any age, he is the most helpless, the most adorable, and completely forgivable. Parents and older siblings conspire to make life easy for this one. He fills a role that allows the older siblings, and aging parents, to feel needed. There is no one behind him for him to help along, nor to be an example for. Parents tend to linger in babying the last baby, not rushing to get him to walk and talk and go off to school like the rest.  He’s not in any race, he can meander.

Latter born children get well-used parents. His parents’ excitement as well as their anxiety level have diminished. They are more relaxed and more confident in their parenting, better able to handle the runny noses, the scraped knees, and the scared feelings about going off to summer camp. The lastborn gets a good dose of an “it’ll be all right” attitude to life.

If you see similarities between the family roles you and your siblings played and those of your own children, so be it. These descriptions can be helpful in understanding behavior patterns and where you can, softening the effects of birth order.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  She will be presenting a series of Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays (except Oct. 31), 7-9 pm, through November 14.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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