In the endless quest to understand more about the human experience, it is natural to explore what shapes us into the people and adults that we become. The natural time to look back on is childhood, and within that sphere, examining the dynamics of sibling and parents is natural. For anyone who has two other siblings, birth order tends to be a major aspect of growing up. Whether you are the youngest, the middle child or the oldest can have a major affect on you, or so it seems.
What we want to explore in this article is whether birth order has a direct, quantifiable relationship to your personality, or whether birth order simply creates a situation within a family that causes recognizable personality traits to emerge.
The short answer? How parents and children react to birth order impacts personality, but there is no inherent link between the order you come out and the person you become.
The Challenges of Childhood
What makes families interesting is the constantly changing personalities of everyone involved, parents and children included. When two people have their first child, they might be very different than they were a few years earlier, and very different from who they might be a decade later. The responsibility of being a parent is immense, and everyone reacts to it in unique ways. However, there are certain common behaviors that arise, which can have a lasting impact on a child’s personality.
If you are the oldest child, you are essentially a guinea pig. Your parents will strive to not make any mistakes, but since they have no real frame of reference, everything they are doing is through trial and error. Parents tend to be overly protective of their oldest (or only) child, not wanting to “screw it up”. These high expectations of themselves as parents can often translate into high expectations for the child as well. This has resulted in the stereotype of the oldest child being an overachiever, or the “model” child in a family. Furthermore, as a firstborn child, you are primarily using your parents as the only example for your behavior, so perfectionism and “early maturity” is a natural result of this mimicry.
If you are born second, you will have an older sibling to mimic, as well as your parents. However, every child adopts a different strategy to win the affection of their parents. With the firstborn child often working towards perfection and meeting their parents’ expectations, second-born children often need to find other ways to get their parents’ attention. In this dual relationship of two siblings, it is often seen that the second sibling rebels in various ways, either in her interests, behavior, academic performance, social activities or general demeanor. While the attention this gains from parents is not always positive, it can often manifest in creative and open-minded tendencies, and a stronger personal will to define their path.
When a third child enters the mix, the dynamic changes once again. Not only have the parents “been through everything”, meaning that they often take a more relaxed approach to later children, but the three-sibling scenario is particularly interesting. Assuming the first two personality roles are true, adding a third child leaves one in the middle, and one with the designation as “the baby”. Stereotypically, we see the “baby” being able to get away with much more in terms of strictness of parental rule, and they also tend to be coddled and “loved” more by the parents. This can reinforce the middle-child syndrome even further, making them often feel forgotten or overlooked. However, the third or youngest child may suffer from feelings of inadequacy, due to them seeing both of their siblings moving forward through life “ahead” of them. This can encourage rebellious behavior, as well as creative and independent beliefs.
Bigger Families or Being an Only Child?
When there are more than three children in a family, many of the same characteristics can be seen; for example, in a family of five, there will be the oldest 2, the middle child, and the youngest two. Those 2nd and 4th children might also experience some feelings of being a middle child. The larger the family, the more complex the dynamics and shifting relationships, as well as loyalties, closeness and emotional maturity.
If there is only one child in a family, they are often close to their parents, since they never had to fight for affection, and they are also used to being in control when it comes to decision-making. They are often academically and professionally minded, and have a deep-seated desire to please their parents and emulate them. At times, however, being an only child can manifest in a manipulative personality.
Just as in any family, the means that children use to gain the attention or favor of their parents is unpredictable and endlessly unique. This means that, while birth order does have an impact on personality, it is more about the interactions within the family that define personality, not necessarily the order.
There are millions of exceptions to any “rule” about personality development. Sometimes an eldest child rebels, while the younger ones “fall in line” with their parents’ strict nature. At other times, middle children outshine older and younger siblings. There are no hard and fast rules, just probabilities, exceptions and human nature.
The Reality of Growing Up
Although it seems like our birth order generates very strict personality tropes, it isn’t nearly that black and white. Again, with billions of unique individuals on the planet, everyone is going to respond differently to an incredibly unique set of challenges and decisions… that’s life! However, when it comes to birth order, the personality impact that it can have can also be avoided or countered. Free will makes life full of random spontaneity, and every moment is a chance to change.
- Birth order and intellectual development. – American Psychological Association Psyc Net
- Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives. – American Psychological Association Psyc Net
- The Huffington Post