As the baby of the family, I was spoiled and indulged—at least that’s what my sisters claimed. I never saw it that way. Constantly dragged to my siblings’ recitals, performances, and graduations, I had nobody to cheer me on by the time my spotlight came around. I always craved the helicopter parents that my oldest sister got, not the folks who jetted off with their newfound freedom. At least, that’s how it felt in my adolescent mind as the youngest of five.
Birth order has been an important and controversial topic for years. Donna Pellegrino, EdD, RN, of The Psychology Group in Cherry Hill, sees that birth order often plays a significant role in our lives. As the oldest child in her family, Dr. Pellegrino observes that “parents frequently encourage the oldest to achieve and give them the opportunity to try a lot of things.” But she stresses that parents should give children, no matter what their ordinal birth position, every opportunity to freely discuss how they feel and think. “We need to give children permission, as well as the opportunity, to be emotionally expressive and to verbalize their opinions to us,” she says.
Frank Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel, believes that eldest children identify with parents and authority and support the status quo. Firstborns learn that all they have to do for attention and approval is to follow rules set by mom and dad. Some experts say this philosophy follows them throughout life and they remain hardworking, driven, confident, and intense.
Jeanne laughs that her sister, Claire, the oldest, is naturally the one to plan family events and keep everyone organized. Cyndi, who grew up in the Midwest, says, “My sister Pam seems like the classic oldest child. She is more self-assured than my sister and I. She is more likely to interject her opinion with a confidence that makes people actually care what she thinks.”
A study published in July 2007 in the journal Science found that oldest children on average had a slightly higher IQ than their siblings. Other studies suggest that firstborns are generally smarter, taller, and are over-represented at Ivy League universities. The undivided attention and greater expectations they receive from their parents may be responsible.
One of the first theorists on the significance of birth order was Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychiatrist. In the 1920s, he suggested that birth order was monumentally important in the formation of one’s personality and character and affected the way one deals with friendship, love, and work. He postulated that firstborns, if faced with the birth of a sibling, are “dethroned.” To compensate for their perceived loss of power and status, they emulate their parents.
“Middles” Have an Advantage
The middle children are born into a scene where compromise reigns. The second born or other “middles” generally are more intuitive and thus more creative in capturing a busy parent’s attention. They learn adaptability early on in life.
Dr. Robert Needlman, MD, FAAP, one of the experts on the parenting website, drspock.com, says that although middle children don’t always feel that they have a defined place in the family, this may turn out to be an advantage. They do not measure success by their ability to meet their parent’s expectations and often develop significant relationships outside the family and have a large circle of friends. They tend to be the peacemakers, attempting to restore connections and relationships. Ginny, a middle from Medford Lakes, says that she feels a little disconnected, yet very protective of the family.
Last Born, First for Attention
The youngest of the family either has to deal with the same struggle for attention as the middle siblings or can enjoy a resurgence of parental interest as the “baby.”
The youngest siblings tend to be the charmers or clowns to get attention. Lora from Voorhees totally buys into the birth order theory. “My youngest is attention-seeking, funny, and loves everyone,” she says. The last-born may end up being dependent and not feeling as though he or she is taken seriously. Despite these negatives, the youngest are quite often the life of the party in social situations.
Only Not Lonely
An only child, too, has particular traits, according to Adler. They may be spoiled and like things their own way. Often mature for their age, only children are usually creative, intelligent, and comfortable in adult circles.
Of course, many debate the birth order theory altogether. According to Michele Rattigan, an art psychotherapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Woodstown, “A lot of people don’t believe that birth order has much to do with children’s personality. So many other environmental factors are involved in why we become the kinds of people that we do.”
Rattigan, who has worked in the mental health field for 13 years, does believe that each child, no matter what his or her order in the family, should be treated as an individual. “It’s important that a parent not label a child. For instance, ‘my youngest is the playful one.’”
Dr. Leon Neubauer of Audubon Psychological Services agrees that parents shouldn’t label their children as firstborns, middle children, or “the baby of the family.” Devote special time to each child, regardless of birth order, he says. “An older child may bear resentment to a younger child,” he says. “Or, he may be angry with the parents because he’s used to having their undivided attention.” Parents should recognize that all children are unique and need their own special time. Dr. Neubauer points out that birth order issues can follow us well into adulthood.
Edmund Shimberg, PhD, a psychologist who shares a private practice with his wife in Cherry Hill, feels that birth order doesn’t have to be an issue. “All parents, in my view, can raise happy, well-adjusted children if they are consistent, if their children know that they are loved and that their parents are available to them,” says Dr. Shimberg.
Dr. Kevin Leman, author of the bestseller The Birth Order Book, Why You Are the Way You Are, says that you can use birth order to become a better parent. He believes that you should treat your children differently. Don’t be afraid to give them different bed times or different allowances. Trying to understand each child’s private logic, you can empower your kids. For instance, ask the middle’s opinion when you’re choosing new wallpaper for the kitchen. Make sure the youngest pitches in and helps the oldest with chores. “Enjoy your kids,” he says. “They’re different from one another.”
Rate Your Personality Traits
Dr. Kevin Leman, a renowned psychologist who has written several books on birth order, lists the following classic characteristics of birth order. Can you see yourself here?
Oldest – reliable, conscientious, list-makers, perfectionists, planners, don’t like surprises, organizers
Middle – negotiators, compromisers, huge on friendship, likely to be different from the rest of the family, rebellious, good marriage partners
Youngest – funny, manipulative, social, outgoing, top salesperson, playful, never met a stranger
Only – like firstborns in triplicate – very reliable, little adults by age 7, precocious, hard-working, achieving, not spoiled
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family, Volume 1, Issue 3 (May, 2010).
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