We’ve all heard it (or said it)… ‘she’s such a typical middle child’, or ‘he’s a true first born – so responsible and sensible’. But do these archetypes have any factual foundation? Is there any research that backs up these statements we hear so frequently? We know we’re even guilty of putting these labels on our own children at times and many of us, even as grown ups, continue to carry our own labels, whether the connotation is positive or negative.
Birth order archetypes explained
Dr Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book contends that there are traits that can be broadly assigned to individuals, based on their birth order.
First born children
Children born first tend to be reliable, conscientious, well organized, natural leaders. They can be critical, serious, scholarly, logical, perfectionists. They hate surprises and love computers. Dr Leman maintains that one of the most reliable assumptions is that first and second born children will be different.
Subsequent children, or middle children often play the role of mediator and compromiser. They tend to be diplomatic, avoid conflict and are independent. Middle children are loyal, have lots of friends, are less likely to be spoiled but can be secretive.
Last born children
Children born last can be manipulative and attention seeking. They may blame others, are tenacious and a little bit precocious. Being very comfortable around people, last borns make great salespeople, as they’re engaging, affectionate and charming and are often described as ‘the life of the party’. They love surprises.
Children with no siblings tend to be mature for their age. They may be conscientious and diligent, with a tendency toward perfectionism. Often only children will be natural leaders, much like first borns, except they don’t need to compete with anyone for attention.
Do any of these descriptions ring true? Can you look at your kids, or your own siblings and firmly identify them based on their birth order? Perhaps a bit like horoscopes, we wonder if you can make some birth order attributes applicable to anyone if you look at them the right way.
Does birth order impact a child?
Yes and no. Some researchers believe that birth order is as powerful an identifier as gender. Some believe that birth order characteristics are merely a piece of a much bigger personality puzzle. To truly know and understand a child, you’d need to look at their family dynamics, how a parent relates to a child in a particular birth order (based on the parent’s own birth order, too), a child’s gender, their physicality, age spacing, twins, adoption, single parent families, blended family, and the list goes on.
What we do know is that each child will have unique emotional experiences, based on their ‘spot’ in the family. Meri Wallace, author, child and family therapist and parenting expert, says that each spot in the order can have its challenges and advantages. As mentioned above, a child’s ‘spot’ is not exclusively related to their birth order, but we’ve outlined Meri Wallace’s broad findings on birth order below.
Impacts on first born children
In a fairly predictable scenario, a first born child has uninterrupted attention from their parents until subsequent siblings arrive. This gives a first born child an inherent sense of security and confidence. But with this level of attention from their parents, a first born can often feel pressure to succeed, a need for perfection and a notion that love and success are the same thing. Wallace goes on to explain that while many first borns initially struggle with jealousy when siblings arrive, the greatest benefit to first borns is learning to love and nurture a small human. But sometimes in their effort to maintain their ‘number one’ status, a first born can criticise or try to dominate their younger sibling.
Impacts on middle children
Think about yourself as a parent second or third time round – so much more confident, calm and relaxed than with your first, right? That rubs off on the middle child, who is often independent. The middle child also benefits immensely from having an older sibling from who they can model behaviours, like talking, reading and physical activities. But with that behaviour comes the mentality that they should be able to keep up with their older brother or sister – they don’t understand that they’re younger and not expected to be at the same level.
A second child can also be inclined towards jealousy, as their older sibling is often the one doing things ‘first’. And these accomplishments can consume a lot of attention from parents, leaving the middle child feeling less valuable and even at times, invisible.
Meri Wallace gives us an example of how a middle child may feel neglected, “It’s not unusual for one parent to be helping the older child with homework, while the other parent gets the baby ready for bed while the middle child sits alone waiting for attention.”
Impacts on last born children
Last born children may try to steal attention from their siblings to compensate for their younger age. Based on their birth order, they may also feel less capable than their siblings and seek additional help from their parents or big brothers and sisters. This can lead to a tendency to get others to do things for them, driving the image of being persuasive and charming.
Impacts on only children
Clearly, an only child receives all of their parents’ love and attention. They don’t have to share that limelight with anyone. As such, only children can grow up very quickly and are perceived more mature than they are. Parents may be tempted to push them based on their own agenda, rather than encouraging the child to explore their own interests.
Only children can sometimes have difficulty sharing and negotiating, so it’s important to set clear boundaries for them so that they understand the parent-child dynamic.
Due to their tendency to be precise and logical, only children sometimes have trouble finding the fun or humour in situations. It’s also not uncommon for only children to attach themselves to inanimate objects or to have imaginary friends.
How parents can support each child, based on their birth order
We love our children equally. But it’s fair to say that we may subconsciously treat our children differently, based on their ‘spot’ in the family, whether that’s being the first born one, or the softly spoken one, or the bossy one, or the one who is more likely to throws tantrums. Meri Wallace has outlined some useful tips that work across the board for all kids, but we’ve broken them down into birth order groups here.
First born children
- Reaffirm the concept that it’s not important to be perfect – you are loved all the time, not just when you’re excelling
- Show first borns that there is enough love for them and a new baby
- Reinforce how special it is that the first born loves and nurtures their younger siblings
- Carve out time for the older child to be alone with their friends or with you, without siblings in tow
- Encourage the first born to speak about their feelings – it’s ok to be upset or jealous of your siblings
- Demonstrate an understanding of their feelings…’I know it’s sometimes hard for you to feel like you’re taking care of your brother all the time. Thank you for your help.’
Second born children
- Help your second born child to see that they are doing well for their age and to understand that they may not be able to do the same things as their bigger sibling yet
- Praise for a second born child’s achievements should be equal to the praise the first born received for the same achievement
- Carve out time for the second child to be alone with their friends, or with you, without siblings in tow
- If their older sibling has something special happening, let the subsequent children be a part of the excitement and celebration
- Watch out for first borns trying to dominate second born children and ensure they get equal opportunity to make decisions about which games are being played or what they’re watching on TV
- Always listen out for the sometimes softer (or drowned out) voice of the middle child – at the dinner table, in the back seat of the car or in larger groups
- Encourage a second born child’s interests so that they can develop their own identity, not simply follow in the footsteps of their older sibling
- Talk to your second born child and let them know you understand how they feel by giving them examples of how you felt when you were a kid
Last born children
- Carve out time for the last born child to be alone with their friends, or with you, without siblings in tow
- Just because they’ll ‘always be your baby’, doesn’t mean that the last born can’t be independent – get them to help around the house and show them that they’re capable
- Make sure that your last born is treated as an equal, not more pampered or neglected than your other children
- Rules are rules, so ensure your last born is held accountable just like their older siblings – this will not only ensure the last born is learning the right lessons, but that older siblings feel that they’re being treated fairly
- Encourage your last born to talk about their feelings and show them you understand by giving examples of your experience as a child
- Encourage your child to pursue their own interests and find things that excite them
- Avoid correcting your child’s behaviour and choices – having one child means there is more time for this, but it plays right into an only child’s tendency to be a perfectionist
- Urge your child to enjoy activities that are age appropriate and that are simply there to be enjoyed, with no extrinsic motivation or reward
- Ensure your only child has a wide circle of family and friends to talk to in all sorts of settings
- Show your only child the funny side of life and let them know it’s important not to take things too seriously
There’s so much more to our children than birth order
We’ve learned that most research done around birth order only relates to Actual Birth Order (ABO). It wasn’t until the 1990s that researchers coined the idea of Psychological Birth Order (PBO) and there is some suggestion that a person’s self-perceived PBO is just as powerful as their ABO.
What does this mean? It implies that an individual will fill a role within a family if it isn’t already taken. According to Psychology Today, in a study completed by Alan E. Stewart, ‘we’re not fated to live out a life dominated by the accident of the timing of our birth. You can’t change your actual birth order, but you can change the way you think about your role in the family.’
From that same article, another set of researchers, Eckstein and Kaufman posit that birth order stereotypes can often be cemented by a parents’ own beliefs. Parents can subconsciously assign birth order roles (amongst other assignations relating to gender, perceived strengths or weaknesses) to their children early in life, almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy…’you come to feel like the leader, if you’re a first-born, because you were handed this role early in your life.’
So, we reckon that the moral of this birth order story is that YES, birth order (actual or psychological) can impact a child’s behaviour and mindset. How much so is dependent on the child’s biology and various perceptions and stereotypes placed on them by their parents, siblings and themselves.
The key is to treat our children as individuals, encourage them to seek out their own identity and avoid labelling your child based on their birth order. Our children are unique and it’s up to us to give them every opportunity to express themselves, free of any preconceived expectations or social constraints. Sounds easy!
Top image: Kate Dimarco
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