Why Birth Order Matters

by Dr. Kevin Leman

Have you ever wondered why your sister or your brother is so different from you?

After all, you grew up in the same family, yet you act so differently and see things so differently. Do you wonder why you continue to butt heads with a certain son or daughter of yours — but with the other children it's smooth sailing?

For over 35 years as a psychologist, I've studied birth order and the role it plays in making you the person you were growing up — and the person you are today. The influence your family has on you as you grow up can reach across time and distance to touch you in profound ways years after you think you've "grown beyond all that."

So why should you care about birth order? Birth order can give you some important clues about your personality; your relationships with loved ones; and how you handle problem solving. Understanding the influence of your birth order can also offer insight into how you parent each of your children (who have their own birth orders). Simply put, knowing yourself better can help you become a better mom or dad.


Birth Order Descriptions

Birth order is really the science of understanding your place in the family line. Were you born first? Second? Third? Or even further down that line? Wherever you landed, it has affected your life in countless ways.

Firstborns and only children: Reliable and conscientious, they tend to be list makers and black-and-white thinkers. They have a keen sense of right and wrong and believe there is a right way to do things. They are natural leaders and achievement-oriented.

Only children take those characteristics a step further. Books are their best friends. They act mature beyond their years — they are little adults by age 7 or 8. They work independently. And they can't understand why kids in other families fight.

Middleborns: They're the hardest to pin down of all the birth orders, but they'll be the opposite of the child above them in the family. If the firstborn is very conventional, the second will be unconventional. Middle children walk to the beat of a different drummer. They are competitive, loyal and big on friendships. The middle child of the family is often the negotiator who tries to keep the peace.

Lastborns: These social, outgoing creatures have never met a stranger. They are uncomplicated, spontaneous, humorous and high on people skills. To them, life's a party. They're the child in the family who is most likely to get away with murder and the least likely to be punished. They often retain their pet name.

Birth order isn't a cookie-cutter process that ensures that firstborns will all be overachievers, middle children will universally be peacemakers, and lastborns will all be the family comedians. Instead, birth-order science is designed to give you clues about what an individual is like and what his thought processes and feelings are.

Birth order isn't hard science that can be measured in a test tube or computed to the 10th power with mathematical formulas. Variables such as when the child is born or the child's sex give birth order a subjective side. And other variables such as the values taught to the child by the parents also come into play. All these factors will combine and have a lifelong effect on who that person turns out to be.

Birth-order impact

So, just how does your order of birth affect your parenting? One typical force at work is the tendency for a parent to overidentify with the child in the same birth-order position. This can lead to putting too much pressure on the child or spoiling or favoring the child.

When I interacted with our first three children while they were growing up, whose antics did I enjoy the most? Kevin II — our baby, of course. For example, when Holly was 13 and Krissy was 11 and they would complain to me about 7-year-old Kevey and his pestering ways, I would say, "Well, girls, let's remember he's the baby of the family. Little baby brothers do that kind of thing to sisters." I identified with Kevin. Do you think Holly and Krissy picked up on that? You bet they did.

In my case, I was overidentifying with my lastborn in an indulging way because, as a baby of the family myself, I loved to pester my older sisters and brother when I was small. But let me be clear that overidentification can also be done in a nonindulgent, hard-line way, particularly when both parents are firstborns. This almost guarantees that the parents will have what I call "the critical eye." Instead of overindulging their firstborn child, they'll probably be extra hard on him or her as they exert their own exacting standards.

Whether compliant or powerful and assertive, there are at least two good reasons why firstborns come in such downright upright (and often a little uptight) packages. Those two reasons are Mom and Dad. Oldest children serve as "guinea pigs" for parents who have never done this kind of thing before. No wonder the kids have more than their share of stress. Brand-new parents are typically a bundle of ambivalence — on one side, overprotective, anxious, tentative and inconsistent; on the other side, strict, disciplined, demanding, always pushing and encouraging better performance.

But what if Dad is a nonconfrontational middle child and Mom is a lastborn baby princess? That means Dad has a contradiction working in his middle-child personality. Even though he may have learned some mediating and negotiating skills while growing up, he decided on a lifestyle that is nonconfrontational because that's what makes him more comfortable. This means he won't want to do much mediating and negotiating with the children, so that leaves it to Mom. Mom is a lastborn who may have had a long history of being spoiled and want things her way. This will certainly spill over into parenting, too.

Instead of trying to be a perfect parent who has a perfect child, why not strive for excellence, doing the job to the best of your ability?

Understanding some basic principles of birth order is not a formula for automatically solving problems or changing your personality overnight. Changing oneself is the hardest task any human being can attempt; it takes lots of work and determination.

Birth-order information does not give the total psychological picture for anyone. No system of personality development can do that. Birth-order statistics and characteristics are indicators that combine with physical, mental and emotional factors to give the bigger picture.

So go easy on trying to turn out the world's first perfectly behaved child. I can assure you it isn't going to happen anyway.

8 Tips for parenting the firstborn child and the only child

  1. When disciplining the firstborn child, beware of reinforcing his ingrained perfectionism by "should-ing" him all the time.
  2. Don't be an "improver" on everything your firstborn or only child says or does.
  3. Realize the firstborn has a particular need to know exactly what the rules are.
  4. Recognize the firstborn's first place in the family. Firstborns should get some special privileges to go along with the additional responsibilities.
  5. Take two-on-one time — both parents out with the oldest child alone. A firstborn responds better to adult company than children of any other birth order.
  6. Stay away from making your firstborn your instant baby sitter.
  7. As your firstborn grows older, be sure you don't pile on more responsibilities. Give some of the responsibilities to the younger children as soon as they are capable.
  8. When your firstborn is reading to you and has trouble with a word, don't be so quick to jump in with a correction. A firstborn is extremely sensitive to criticism and being corrected.

6 Tips for parenting the middle child

  1. Recognize that your middle child may avoid sharing how he or she really feels about things. Set aside times for just the two of you to talk.
  2. Take extra care to make your middle child feel special.
  3. Set up some regular privileges he or she can count on having or doing every day or every week — this is the middle child's exclusive territory.
  4. Make a special effort to give your child a new item of clothing rather than a hand-me-down.
  5. Listen carefully to your middle child's answers or explanations for what is going on or what he or she thinks of certain situations. The desire to avoid conflict and not make waves may get in the way of real facts.
  6. Be sure the family photo album has its share of pictures of your middle child. And be sure you take some photos of your middleborn alone.

6 Tips for parenting the lastborn child

  1. Be sure your lastborn has his or her fair share of responsibilities around the house.
  2. Don't let your lastborn get off the hook in regard to family rules and regulations.
  3. While you're making sure you don't coddle your youngest child, don't let him or her get clobbered or lost in the shuffle, either.
  4. Introduce your youngest child to reading very early. Six months is not too young to start reading to your child with brightly colored, illustrated books.
  5. Whenever necessary, call the baby's bluff.
  6. Try to get your lastborn's baby book completed before he or she is 21.

Taken from The Birth Order Book: Why you are the way you are by Dr. Kevin Leman. Copyright © 2009, Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.

This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "The Born Identity." Copyright © 2013 by Dr. Kevin Leman. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.

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