The birth order effect

By Psychologies
The birth order effect

The order we’re born in – first, middle or youngest child – is outside our control. So it can make us uncomfortable to think that our birth order can play a significant part in our success, our personality – the direction of our life. Surely, these things are not set before we even get started?

And yet, we all know a ‘typical middle child’, we recognise ‘classic only-child behaviour’. And the over-achievement of the first-born is one of the most consistent findings in child psychology. So how big a role does birth order play?

I’m coming from a vulnerable, emotionally charged and pregnant perspective. I have two daughters, aged five and six, and am about to add a third baby to the mix. At the moment, Ruby, our eldest, has life sussed. She’s independent, educationally gifted and sometimes I think I could leave her in Sainsbury’s and she’d probably look after herself. Tara, her younger sister, is the one who wants the cuddles, who frets if I’m not first at the door when school finishes. The idea that she’ll soon be shoved out of her space as the baby of the family and squashed into the middle fills me with guilt. Is it downhill for her from now on?

The importance of birth order was first set out by the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler. Michael Grose, an Adlerian-trained parenting expert and author of Why First-borns Rule the World and Last-borns Want to Change It (£12.99, Random House), explains the basics. ‘We’re in a Darwinian struggle from the moment we’re born, fighting for scarce resources within a family – our parents’ time, love and affection,’ he says. Through human evolution, birth order has determined who inherits power (the first-born) and who is sent to war (the youngest as he was the ‘spare’).

Historically, first-borns have been less likely to die in infa-ncy, are less susceptible to disease and, as adults, are more likely to reproduce. They are their parents’ ‘blue-chip security’, whose birth is most eagerly anticipated, whose first steps, first words, first everythings are celebrated. ‘Typical first-borns are appro-val-seeking missiles,’ says Grose. ‘They’ve been showered with attention and identify strongly with power.’ First-borns are thought to be conscientious and achievement-oriented. A study of Norwegians born between 1912 and 1975 found that educational achievement was highest in first-borns and diminished the further down the birth order you got, despite little difference in IQ. The legal profession is, says Grose, filled with first-borns. World leaders are also overwhelmingly first-born children.

On the negative side, first-borns are the only ones who experience having their parents all to themselves, then having to share them. For this reason, they’re thought to be anxious, emotionally intense, defensive and prone to jealous rages.

These are all characteristics that fit Sarah Ruskell, 43. The eldest of three, she’s a successful academic, married with three children. As a child, she was serious, bookish and mature. ‘I had a younger sister and brother who were much naughtier on a daily basis,’ she says. ‘But if I was pushed, if they messed up my room or touched my records, I’d rage. Any threat to my power, I suppose.’

Another characteristic of first-borns, according to Frank Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel (Abacus), is caution and aversion to risk. They’re the least likely to travel or be physically daring. Again, this fits Sarah. While her middle brother took up hang-gliding and both siblings backpacked round the world, Sarah’s biggest adventure to date is a thunderstorm in France.

Many theorists group only children amongst first-borns ­– although they never experience having to share their parents, nor the frictions, fights or fondness that comes with siblings. For this reason, they feel like outsiders, distanced from much of life. The only child is thought to be extremely mature, aloof, someone who expects a special standing.

So what about the middle child? According to Darwinian theory, they lose out as they are neither the precious, able, oldest,­ nor the vulnerable youngest. Their strength is that they learn to be more flexible and sociable, to compromise and build coalitions. ‘Middle children tend to be more relaxed,’ says Grose.

James, 39, is a typical case. Born between his sister and brother, he has always been easy-going, and loves to be surrounded by friends. Yet his affability comes at a price. ‘I turned my back on becoming a pro rugby player because I lacked competitive drive,’ he says. As the first-born boy, James didn’t struggle to establish his own identity as some middle-borns do, but, he says, ‘if I wanted something I definitely had to shout the loudest to make myself heard’. Gemma, 33, the middle of three sisters, found it harder to carve out her niche. ‘I lived in my older sister’s shadow, and was overlooked in favour of my younger sister,’ she says. ‘I felt left out, and overcompensated by forging friendships outside the family.’ She also became a skilled negotiator. ‘As a “middle” I was the peacemaker. I still use those skills now, and I’m good at seeing everyone’s point of view.’

The youngest children are more likely to question the order of things, and develop a ‘revolutionary personality’. Many last-borns choose a completely different path to their older siblings to avoid direct competition. They are the babies of the family, and may grow up expecting others to take responsibility. ‘They’re not life’s volunteers,’ says Grose. ‘They’re more likely to put others in service.’ As the youngest of three, I can recognise myself in that. Growing up, I was the most likely to have blazing rows with my dad, I sympathised with the underdog and I’m not a volunteer. (At family get-tog-ethers, I’m still the least helpful.)

But a lonely outsider, struggling with an inferiority complex? It seems harsh to condemn anyone to this description simply on the basis of where they stand in the family.

Grose admits the effects of birth order can vary according to different factors, including temperament, gender and age gap. Lucy McDonald is the third of five children, but was the first girl. ‘I’ve got a mix of middle and oldest child traits,’ she says.

‘You can have an easy-going first-born, which will ease the competition all the way down,’ says Grose. ‘If the children are the same sex, the competition is more extreme –­ two boys close together produces the most rivalry, and, generally, the closer the age gap, the more dramatic the birth-order effect. When the gap is more than five years, it’s greatly diminished.’

Grose has found birth order a useful tool when dealing with adult clients. ‘Recently, I was approached by a professional in her forties who was basically worn out,’ he says. ‘She admitted that, as a child, she was always playing catch-up with her sister, who was two years older than her. She had always tried to run as fast and be as clever, and the pattern had played out her whole life. As an adult, she was competitive in everything ­– she’d replaced her older sister with her colleagues, her boss, her friends. Despite career success, she was never happy with herself. Helping her see the problem through the context of birth order put her on the path to understanding and modifying her behaviour patterns.’

Cliff Isaacson, author of Birth Order Effect for Couples (£9.99, Fair Winds), believes birth order can even help you find a partner. ‘Two third-borns make the best couples,’ he says. ‘They relate without conflict, there’s a lot of humour and they make a protective environment for their children. Two first-borns rarely connect, there’s no compromise, it’s not a happy relationship.’

According to Isaacson, however, birth order is not a fixed state. ‘It’s a set of strategies developed in childhood to cope with your siblings (or lack of them), parents and the family situation,’ he says. ‘As you get older, you may learn other ways of interacting with your peers. The best reason for studying your birth order is to understand yourself or your children a little better – then overcome it.’

Are you a born leader?
- First-borns and only children: more than half the US Presidents, every US astronaut and most Nobel prize-winners are in this category. Typical professions are law, politics, science and accountancy.
- First-borns: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W Bush, Saddam Hussein, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler (actually his mother’s first surviving child), Kylie Minogue, Cherie Blair.
- Only children: Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt, Jean Paul Sartre, Burt Bacharach, Frank Sinatra, Tiger Woods.
- Middle children: many middle children work in retail, sales, fashion, advertising or the caring professions. Stella McCartney, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jacqueline du Pré, Princess Diana, Cindy Crawford, Cate Blanchett, Emily Brontë.
- Last children: thought to be rebels, non-conformists, also drawn to creative professions and performing arts. Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Leon Trotsky, Charlie Chaplin, Hugh Grant, Johnny Depp.

Click here to read about overcoming sibling rivalry in adulthood.

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