How Could Birth Order Impact Your Child’s Personality?
Parents, professionals weigh in
Lisa Southwick and her husband, Dan, parent six kids in Apex — five biological and one adopted. “I have often said how different my kids are,” she says, “which surprises me since five of my six kids are from the same two parents!”
One reason siblings are so different is their birth order, says psychologist Kevin Leman, author of “The Birth Order Book” (Revell, 2009). Whether kids are born first, second, third or even farther down the line, birth order affects them in countless ways.
For instance, studies show that firstborns perform better academically than their younger siblings. An October 2013 Duke University study titled, “Strategic Parenting, Birth Order and School Performance” suggests that “trickle down” parenting is one reason for the disparity. Parents have higher expectations and more stringent rules for firstborns in hopes that younger siblings will take note.
While many exhausted parents can relate, Leman says other factors can also determine how birth order affects their child(ren). Mental or physical illness in one of the siblings, large age gaps, gender, adoptions and divorces all play a role.
Therapist Meri Wallace, author of “Birth Order Blues: How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet the Challenges of Birth Order” (Holt Paperbacks, 2014), says that despite the many subtleties of families, kids who share a birth order often exhibit similar strengths and share common emotional challenges. Wallace says parents who recognize the validity of each child’s experience can help kids build self-esteem and alleviate sibling rivalry in the family.
Leman describes firstborns as either the first child born into a family or the first child of their gender. Only children also often share similar traits as firstborns. Leman says that the oldest child tends to receive the most attention and praise. However, parents of firstborns are the least experienced.
Southwick can relate. “As new parents we were completely challenged by our firstborn,” she says.
Leman says that firstborns tend to be natural leaders, reliable and conscientious. They also favor black-and-white thinking. Firstborns might prefer a sensible adult to their peers and act wise beyond their years. They also tend to be competitive overachievers.
Perfectionism is a firstborn’s worst enemy, Wallace says. This is especially true since their inexperienced parents tend to have unrealistic expectations of them.
“Some firstborn children go through life feeling that they cannot measure up,” Wallace says. “Lacking in confidence, they might drop out and refuse to compete altogether.”
Wallace advises parents to avoid criticizing their firstborns or comparing them to others. Instead, she encourages parents to praise their kids’ efforts, even when they fail. “Emphasize the distinction between his performance and his value as a person,” Wallace says.
Leman also advises that parents remember that their firstborns are still kids. As such, they shouldn’t be expected to fully care for their younger siblings or take on more than their share of work in the home.
Leman says middle children’s personalities are the hardest to pin down. “They’ll be the opposite of the child above them in the family,” he says. “If the firstborn is very conventional, the second will be unconventional.”
Southwick agrees. “When we had our secondborn, Kelsey, we were amazed at how much more easygoing she was than our firstborn,” she says.
Leman says middleborns can be skilled diplomats and negotiators, but that they also march to the beat of their own drum. They form tighter relationships within a friend circle as a way to carve out their own place in the world.
What middle children lack, however, is attention, Wallace says. Middleborns often report feeling overlooked and under appreciated. They compare themselves to their older siblings and feel inadequate and jealous. However, they also experience the pressure of younger siblings advancing in age behind them.
Feeling this squeeze, middleborns can become attention seekers, Wallace says. They may dress or act flamboyantly, become people pleasers or clowns, or resort to negative behaviors.
Wallace advises parents to reassure middleborns that although there are unique challenges to being a middle child, they are equally loved. Wallace also says spending special time with middleborns can reduce misbehavior and build self-esteem.
Leman advises making sure middle children aren’t always stuck with the hand-me-downs, if possible. Leman also warns that middle children tend to be more secretive, so it’s important that parents listen carefully when they explain their views and feelings.
“These social, outgoing creatures have never met a stranger,” Leman says of the youngest family members. For lastborns, life is one big party. Since parents are less likely to punish lastborns, their siblings often accuse them of “getting away with murder.”
Southwick has another take on the situation however. “My oldest is 27 and my youngest is 9,” she points out. “I’m parenting them in completely different worlds. Their personalities are different, too, and I’ve learned a lot. So I’m not going to parent them both the same way.”
Despite what their siblings might think, Leman says lastborns live with great ambivalence. They are adored one minute, then left out and ignored as the baby the next. Leman, who was the youngest in his own family, says lastborns can carry this ambivalence with them into adulthood. However, youngest children can also be very stubborn and persistent, determined to prove that they can do anything.
Wallace points out several ways parents can help lastborns thrive. Tension among siblings can trickle down to the youngest, who is least able to defend himself or herself. Parents need to be careful that older siblings aren’t dominating lastborns. Older siblings can quickly grow impatient with their youngest brother or sister, too.
Parents can support lastborns by helping siblings find developmentally appropriate ways for them to play together. To reduce resentment among siblings, parents can also include lastborns in all parts of family life, including chores.
No matter what order your child was born in, unconditional love mixed with consistent discipline and customized parental oversight can help him or her become a kind, emotionally stable, contributing member of society who will hopefully someday follow your example when raising his or her own children.
Christa C. Hogan is a freelance writer and local mom to three boys.
Birth Order Quizzes
Want to learn more about how birth order may be affecting you or your child? Try taking these online quizzes.
Children’s Books About Siblings
“The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo” by Judy Blume (Yearling, 1982)
“The Pain and the Great One” by Judy Blume (Athenium Books for Young Readers, 1974)
“Charlotte the Scientist is Squished” by Camille Andros (Clarion Books, 2017)
“Big Sister, Little Sister” by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion Books for Children, 2005)
“My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother” by Patricia Polacco (Simon & Schuster, 1998)