How birth order affects a child's development and what parents can do to help

How birth order affects a child's development


As a mother of two kids, I have been fascinated to see how their characters have developed, and often catch myself wondering why / how their personalities have evolved to be the way they are. Which characteristics did they inherit from my husband, and which came from my family? To what extent has their upbringing influenced the way they are? Chatting to friends, it’s interesting to see how birth order seems to influence our children’s characters, too. So many of our eldest kids seem to have a strong sense of responsibility and to be very self-critical, whereas youngest kids are often easily identifiable by their “devil may care” attitude and seeming lack of worries. When I look at my kids, I often find myself wondering how on earth they ended up being so completely different to each other, and whether their characters would be different if their birth order had been reversed.

This, coupled with my son’s constant complaining that he has to do all the jobs and his younger sister never has to do anything, prompted me to do some more research into “typical” characteristics of kids based on their birth order, and how we, as parents, can help our kids develop to be as happy and well balanced as possible when taking birth order factors into consideration.

The Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Alder was the first theorist to suggest that birth order influences personality. According to Alder, firstborns are “dethroned” when a second child comes along, and this may have a lasting influence on them. Since Alder’s time, the influence of birth order on the development of personality has become a controversial issue in psychology. Among the general public it is widely believed that personality is strongly influenced by birth order, but many psychologists dispute this. As any parent is aware, even if you try to treat your children exactly the same, no parent behaves in exactly the same way with each of their children and no two children ever take the same role within the family so it’s very difficult to “prove” empirically that birth order plays a strong role in character development, even if practical experience suggests that this is the case.

In the course of my research, I repeatedly came across certain groups of characteristics which were common to eldest, middle, youngest and only children. I’ve summarized the key characteristics below. I hope you find it interesting to read through these and assess which (if any) characteristics tally with your own experiences. However, it’s important to remember that there are many exceptions that can have an effect on the impact that birth order has on personality, including: gender, blended families, adoption, multiples, how many children are in the family etc. Also, the characteristics outlined below are tendencies and are not certainties. They represent what is possible, not what is ordained, so individual children may vary dramatically from what is viewed as “typical” and there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with them if they do!

First Borns
As a parent, you remember your first born’s early years very well. You were new to the whole parenting thing, and as a result watched their development very cautiously, paranoid about getting things wrong. Every potential injury was cause for panic, and every developmental milestone was cause for celebration. You watched them to make sure they were breathing in their cot, cautiously monitored their weight gain every week, spent hours pureeing organic vegetables when they were weaning etc. Your firstborn is your only child that will ever have her parents to herself: any subsequent children have to share.

Your eldest child will probably have more in common with other firstborns than their own brothers and sisters. Because they have had so much control and attention from their first-time parents, they have a tendency to be over-responsible, reliable, well-behaved, careful and smaller versions of their own parents. The firstborn is used to being the centre of attention: (s)he has Mum and Dad to him / herself before siblings arrive – statistics suggest that oldest children enjoy on average approx. 3,000 more hours of quality time with their parents between ages 4 and 13 than their siblings will get.

If you are a firstborn, you are probably a high achieving perfectionist who seeks approval and has a tendency to dominate any space you occupy. Firstborns can often be found in leadership careers such as law, medicine or as a CEO.

As a mini-parent, your eldest child may try to dominate their siblings. Problems start when baby number two arrives and your dominant eldest child may experience a sense of loss and feel jealous and neglected because they are no longer the centre of attention. All of the attention that was exclusively theirs must now be shared with their sibling. Some of the key character traits that tend to characterize eldest children are:

Eldest children can often be viewed as born leaders. However, on the flip side this may also manifest itself in the belief that they must gain and hold superiority over other children. Since eldest children are often given the responsibility of babysitting and taking care of the house, they get early training in being the boss!
They may choose to keep or try to regain parents attention through conformity. If this fails, there’s a possibility they might choose to misbehave and rebel
Strive to help and protect others and to please
Often perfectionists, enjoy making other people happy
Highly motivated to achieve success
Happy to take on a leadership role
Confident: all the one-on-one attention parents provide make them more likely to believe in themselves

Middle Children
The child caught in the middle is often dominated by the firstborn, who is older, wiser and more competent by virtue of their age and the amount of individual attention they have received from their parents. By the time the second baby arrives, parents are usually worn down, worn out and less likely to micro-manage. By now, parents know their baby is not going to break, and therefore, they can be more flexible in both attention and discipline. As a result, the second child learns early on to attract attention and entertain. Whilst the eldest child is programmed for excellence and achievement, middle children have a tendency to be understanding and conciliatory.

Middle children often get caught up in the role of “peacemaker”. They have a tendency to place a high value on fairness, be understanding, cooperative and flexible, yet competitive. As a rule, middle children will not excel at the same thing as their elder siblings. The personality trait that defines middle children will usually be the opposite of their elder and younger siblings.

Often, middle children will pick an intimate circle of friends to represent their extended family, and it is here that they find the attention lacking in their birth family. Middle children tend to receive the least amount of attention from their parents, and, as a result, this family of their own choice is their compensation.

Middle children are in very good company with notable US Presidents and celebrities such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Bill Gates and Donald Trump. Though often late bloomers, they frequently end up in power careers that allow them to use their negotiating skills… and finally achieve the attention they crave! Often, the highly developed social skills, which they have acquired through negotiating and navigating within the structure of their own families, can prepare them for a high profile entrepreneurial role. Key features that can characterize a middle child include:

Never has parents’ undivided attention
Always has a sibling ahead who is more advanced so they may act as if in a race, trying to Catch up or overtake the first child
Tend to develop abilities the first child does not exhibit
Often handle disappointments better
Great negotiator due to their ability to see both sides of an issue
Lots of loyal friends – make friends easily and once they have them they work hard to keep Them. They usually tend to be good at keeping secrets, too.

The Youngest Child: The Life of the Party
By the time their third baby arrives, most parents are confident in their roles and much of the caution and fear they felt when looking after their firstborn will have disappeared. As a result, parents may tend to be more lenient with their youngest child, and will not necessarily pay attention to his / her every move or milestone, as they did with their older kids. In order to get the attention they may sense that they lack, youngest children learn quickly how to seduce the crowd with charm and likability.

Youngest children tend to have more freedom than the other siblings and, as a result, they are often more independent. Youngest children may find that they have a lot in common with their eldest sibling because both have been made to feel special and entitled.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, youngest children often find careers in the entertainment business as actors, comedians, writers, directors etc. They also make good teachers. Since their parents are more laid back and lenient by the time they arrive, they can expect freedom to follow their own path in a creative style. And, as the baby of the family, they have had less responsibility, and therefore don’t tend to attract responsible experiences. Typical characteristics of youngest children can include:

Outgoing, love to make people laugh and take centre stage
May be considered spoiled, demanding or impatient
Persistent – will not give up when it comes to their goal
Great storyteller – whether it’s true or not, youngest kids can spin a great yarn!
Affectionate – have plenty of hugs and kisses to give out
They may also feel that they have to work harder to get other people to pay attention to them and that it’s a struggle to be taken seriously
May also feel that people treat them “younger than they are”

The Only Child
The only child is the first and last child in one and so is the only chance at parenting the parents get. Thus they can take this charge very seriously. They don’t want to make mistakes at the child’s expense, so are very conscientious and deliberate in their parenting.

Only children grow up surrounded by adults, having unrivalled access to their parents and everything they provide and are, as a result, often more verbal and mature. The high level of adult interaction they experience allows gains in intelligence that exceeds other birth order differences. Because the only child has no siblings with whom to connect, to be compared to, to compete against, or to conflict with, the child may become “adultized” (socially and verbally precocious) from identifying with and interacting with these primary parental companions. Having spent so much time alone, they tend to be resourceful, creative and confident in their independence.

If you’re an only child, you actually have a lot in common with those who are first borns, as well as those who are the youngest in their families. Only children often display the following characteristics:

Well organized, or perfectionists
Comfortable with responsibility
Tend not to take criticism well and may be overly self-critical when elevated standards of conduct and performance are not met
Are comfortable being the centre of attention because they are used to being the centre of family attention at home
Tend to develop high self-esteem
Prefer the company of a “family” of a few close friends to being a social butterfly, from being used to the close companionship of parents
Feel strongly attached to their parents, often carrying a sense of obligation and responsibility for their care
Are ambitious to achieve

At the end of the day, every child is unique. Most parents would agree that their main priority is to create an environment that is nurturing, secure, healthy and stimulating, irrespective of a child’s birth order. By understanding your particular child’s personality and temperament, you can manage their environment to help them to achieve their fullest potential. For example, understanding that a first born child feels highly responsible allows you to lighten their load and recognizing that the baby of the family is experiencing a more lenient environment can help you be more diligent in your discipline.

Children need to be given the opportunities and encouragement to fulfil their potential, whatever order they were born in, and helping to provide an environment which is conducive to them doing this is one of the most important aspects of being a parent.

References: Child Development Institute, Huffington Post, Parents, Scientific American, study by Tiffany L Frank at Adelphi University

Study from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.


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