Wednesday, February 26, 2014

On Birth Order

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I have always been interested in the dynamics of birth order and how that shapes an individual's personality.  I was first introduced to the idea through a book about siblings put out through the American Girl franchise.  I must have mentioned something to my dad about it because he offered me a birth order book.  While I didn't read it in its entirety, I gleaned a lot that I still carry around with me.

Part of my personality is just geared toward this kind of thing.  I have a tendency to really enjoy analyzing what makes people tick, what experiences have shaped them.  Somewhere around the same time of this interest in birth order I was at a summer camp where girls were really surprised to find I was a youngest child--they pegged me as more of an oldest or a middle child at least.  I think in those group dynamics I had defaulted to my quite common "mother hen" role that is typical of an oldest child, but I found it interesting that their guess on my birth order wasn't correct.

Then I found a new piece of the puzzle:  my parents gave me a newspaper article they had saved from a few months after I was born that wasn't exactly about birth order, but similar.  It was about the differences between a first child and a second child.  Now this explained me.  I never seemed to fit the description of the "baby" of the family--I wasn't dependent on others or disorganized or extremely outgoing or always looking to be the center of attention (youngest children are often in show business).  But this article described a second child as more cautious, quiet, intuitive.  I can't remember everything the article said, but it seemed to fit me to a T.

Then came another situation, in high school, when birth order came up and some lunchmates not in my year who didn't know me well pegged me as a middle child.  I was a peacemaker and laid-back.  Again, shocked to learn I was the youngest.

What I have found in my amateur study of birth order is that the often accurate stereotypes of birth order apply most accurately when there are at least three children in the family.  If there are only two, they often still apply if the children are of the same gender.

Why is that?  Glad you asked.  Individuals tend to form personalities within their families based on needs they have and roles they can fill.  In my family, I have one older brother.  So when I came along, I was fulfilling a completely different role.  We were different genders and it was our genders that tended to define what made us unique in the family over our order of birth.  (Consequently, I don't think my brother is a "typical" oldest child at all.)
Yep, that's me.  On the right.  Doing my best to fulfill the role of "girl".
Another example: My dad likes to lament his particular place in the family growing up saying he didn't have anything that made him "special".  (Though if you know my dad, you realize he's kind of "special"--har har, Dad :-)  The first child born in his family was a girl.  She was special because she was the first child and remains a very standard oldest child to this day.  The second child born was a boy.  He was special because he was the first boy.  Then came my father.  He was not the first child or the first boy.  He was followed by a sister, the baby of the family and a pretty typical youngest child.
Oldest reading, my father ready to create some mischief on the left since he's been displaced by the new baby, outside of the frame.

When there are at least three children in a family there will be an overlap in gender and therefore each child begins to be defined by something that makes them different or special in the family.  These definitions of self, whether formed by the individual or molded by parents and other family, are what set up the dynamics that give us these common birth order personalities.

Oldest children tend to be go-getters; they become doctors, lawyers--someone in charge.
Middle children tend to be more relaxed; they are peacemakers, often shy or quiet.  These people are more likely to describe themselves as introverts; they gravitate to fields like caregiving, education.
Youngest children tend to be social butterflies and love attention.  They are almost always extroverts and as mentioned, many will go into some kind of performance job.

I think birth order stereotypes are magnified in families where the children are all of the same gender and I find a family with four children to be the best case study--more becomes a little difficult.  I've had the good fortune of being able to indulge my little psych hobby over the years with a highly available case study family: my husband and his siblings (did you guys know you were being studied/still are being studied?).
That's #1, #4, #3, and #2 left to right
My husband grew up in a house with three brothers.  (He has an older half-sister, but she was 18 when he was born so the dynamics he grew up with were primarily limited to the four boys.)  I have found that each of them makes a wonderful example of what is typical for their place of birth in the family.  Boy #1 was valedictorian in high school and today is a plastic surgeon.  Boy #4 was student body president, is very outgoing and chatty and teaches high school (a small-scale way to be the center of attention :-).

The two in the middle are also very typical middle children.  They are both introverted and more quiet.  The older middle child also has typical tendencies to lean more to oldest child qualities if he deviates from middle child qualities.  My husband, the younger middle child, is introverted, relaxed, and dislikes conflict.  I'm also told that as a young child he was rather mischievous--a typical tactic of the second-youngest in response to his displacement by the baby of the family.

All of the boys are smart and athletic and being all the same gender, they have had a lot in common which I think is often responsible for more strict adherence to birth order stereotypes.  Again, that quest for uniqueness.  If, perhaps, boy #2 had been the star athlete while the others were mediocre at best, that would have given him his "role".  If my husband as boy #3 had been an exceptional artist, that would have given him a unique "role".  Then there would have perhaps been the academic, the athlete, the artist, and the gregarious one.

Lots of variables can cause the stereotypes to change, of course, like gaps of more than three or four years between children.  Often children more than four to five years apart in age will each function more like an only child if there are only two and if there are more, two separate "families" might be formed.  My mother is one of four as well.  She is the second child and first girl.  The next girl, my aunt, tells me that she often gets pegged as an oldest child.  She thinks this comes from my grandparents always dividing the "younger" ones from the "older" ones even though my aunt is exactly four years younger than my mother and four years older than my other aunt, the "baby".

In families with two children of the same gender, sometimes this second child will end up filling whatever the "opposite" role of the first child is.  For example, a boy with an older brother who is good at sports might pursue arts.  It will be difficult for him to catch up to his older brother in skill until he has grown up a bit and in the meantime he is not able to be as unique--his brother is fulfilling the athlete role.  In a family of two girls, the first girl may be very feminine.  The second girl may see that role fulfilled and be more of a tomboy.  This is sometimes enhanced (unwittingly) by a father who will enjoy having an athletic daughter since he doesn't have a son.

In families where there are a few children of the same gender and then a child of the opposite gender finally arrives, if that child is followed by another they may develop some attributes of an oldest child.  This can be particularly true if the next child to arrive is of the same gender; now we have a pairing with an older and a younger of the same gender and natural tendencies toward an oldest/youngest dynamic will arise.

I could probably go on for a bit longer, but I'll spare all of you this evening.  Hopefully you found this interesting and maybe it will encourage you to read more about birth order.  At the very least it will hopefully help you begin to understand your own family of origin, your spouse's, and new people in your life as you notice how a personality is molded by these factors.


  1. The pic of you and Brian is still one of my all-time favorites. Interesting discussion. Loved how you included pics of each group of kids. Love, Dad.

  2. I did a research project on birth order for one of my college classes during my Freshman year. It was so fascinating! I'm the 4th of 6 children and am a self-acclaimed classic middle child (the order is girl, boy, girl, me, boy, girl). As you noted about birth order and genders, my Mom is the youngest in her family but displays characteristics of an oldest child. Did I mention that her 3 older siblings are all boys? I'm right there with you -- birth order is such a fascination to me and I look forward to learning more (my college major is Early Childhood Education and I expect to learn more through those continuing education studies).

    God bless you!

  3. I find all that fascinating too, though I don't know much about it (you just taught me a lot). I am one of two, only girl, and my brother is five years younger, but I would say we are probably the very typical "oldest" and "baby". I love talking to my mom about her family growing up. She felt like she wasn't special - the baby but second girl, so her parents already had a boy and a girl and she was just the "extra". I see why she feels that way though because my grandparents clearly favor my aunt and uncle (though they don't realize they do it) while my mom is the one that cares for them 100%. So definitely parental relationships make a huge difference family to family.

  4. Thought this was one of the best mini-guides to birth order I've ever read. And I've read a lot on this. I think that people can be surprised by our birth order because of another trait. You and I are very spongey (which we get from mom). We fulfill perceived "needed" roles. In groups with appointed or strong leaders, we fill a dependable role. With no leadership, we turn mother hen. In introverted groups, more the life and excitement of the party. No one is ever surprised I'm an oldest. However, they are always surprised I only have one sibling. I always took on younger kids and such. I had a lot of leadership and mentor roles. So I think I come off as someone who feels very responsible for lots of people. People told me the same about you in HS and college campus ministry.


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