We’ve all heard it before. Oldest children are naturally bossy and serious. Youngest children are often spoiled and naturally enjoy being the center of attention. And the middle child? Well, they even have a syndrome named for them, which is supposed to make them afraid of being left out and without a clear place in the family.
But does birth order really matter so much? More than other factors like socio-economic status or ethnic background? And what about only children?
Today, we’ll try to answer some of these questions and see what science says about how birth order can affect your personality!
To begin with, our fascination with birth order and the ways it might shape us as people is nothing new. In many cultures around the world, oldest children were prepared from a young age for higher responsibility and privilege. Laws or traditions that firstborn sons inherited most or all of the parents’ estate meant that the oldest was looked at as an adult in the making.
In modern times, all children are seen as equal, though there is a natural tendency to give more responsibility to the oldest, whether girl or boy. The scientific interest in how our place in the family affects our personality began in earnest with Alfred Adler, a psychologist and friend of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
For Adler, our relationship to siblings is highly dependent on where we fit in the family. As Adler wrote, “meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations.”
So what are the situations that children have to figure out according to when they’re born?
1) The oldest child has a lot of expectations placed on them before they even grow up. They are often given a lot of responsibility at a young age and parents want them to be role models for younger siblings. Oldest children will often internalize the pressure to perform at a high level. When their younger siblings are born, they are “dethroned” and have to get used to no longer being the “baby” and the center of attention.
2) The middle child can often feel sandwiched by older and younger siblings. They often have to deal with being forgotten or overlooked as parents focus on the oldest (the responsible child) and the youngest (the vulnerable child). This makes it difficult to find their place in the family.
3) The youngest child is in the unique position of having multiple parental figures, both their real parents and their older siblings. This means they receive lots of attention and come to see this as natural and normal. They will always be the “baby,” and are often indulged by parents because of it.
4) The only child is in a unique situation where he or she gets 200 percent of the attention without any competition from other siblings. They will often grow up quickly, learning to talk and act like adults and preferring their company to that of other kids.
So all of us have to find a place to fit in the family. Given our birth “situations,” what are we most likely to do and how does it shape our personality as adults?
1) The oldest child will often become very serious, high-achieving, and even perfectionistic because of the authority they are given early on. These are natural leaders later in life, who like to be in control, are highly motivated to succeed, and can be counted on to do their part.
However, they can be too cautious and worry a lot because of the heavy weight of responsibility they have been carrying with them since childhood.
2) The middle child will often resent and feel sad about not having a defined place in the family. They will often seek alternative paths to distinguish themselves from the others, such as creativity and artistic expression, or else rebelling against the family order they feel overlooked by.
While middle children struggle with being left out, their experience can make them excellent negotiators and go-betweens in professional life, as well as making them very independent and able to work by themselves.
3) The youngest child will often be very social as they have had lots of people around them. They will continue to enjoy attention and affirmation from others and might not respond well to criticism. Because their parents were much more relaxed and easygoing, they will probably pick up these traits as well, assuming that everything will work out well for them.
Youngest children often have difficulty assuming responsibility and being just another member of the team rather than its focal point.
4) The only child will often fiercely pursue their dreams and achieve them as they are highly driven and motivated. Because they have never had siblings, they might have difficulty sharing resources and ideas with others, both as a child and later in life at work. They can be very uncompromising about their vision.
As for the science behind birth order, it’s interesting to note that firstborns often perform better throughout their school experience and place slightly higher on intelligence tests. For younger siblings, rebelling against the family and established order are much more likely, as are being sociable and agreeable.
These studies suggest that age-old assumptions about our place in the family were right after all!
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