You’ve probably heard phrases like ‘she’s a typical firstborn’, or ‘middle-child syndrome. All referring to the sibling order you were born into and how it affects your personality. But is there any truth that our birth order shapes our behavior? Being the firstborn child in my family unit, I’m eager to find out…
Birth order theory
The theory that our birth order affects who we are was started by Alfred Adler. A colleague of Sigmund Freud who believed the psychological position of each child in the family is different. In a nutshell, he believed firstborns were ‘dethroned’ and put out when a second child is born. Middle children feel overlooked and the youngest child is often spoiled. His theories are very general and by no means set in stone. It’s also worth noting that some researchers dismiss birth order theories completely. Whilst others place much importance on them, so expect differing views! That said, when I took a quick poll of my friendship group, they all said Adler’s theory was spot on when it came to their siblings.
Birth Order: If you are the firstborn child
Firstborns are raised by parents who have never parented before. This means they are often brought up with a series of trial and error judgements – the parents ultimately not always getting it right! Firstborn traits tend to be that they are honest, dominant (and therefore less agreeable) and high achievers. This is thought to be because they are sometimes treated as mini-adults by their parents and being the ‘leaders of the pack’ have to lead the way!
Being the centre of attention in your parents eyes, even for a short period of time, means firstborns get undivided attention. Two parents will have time to play and read to firstborns (and become obsessed with every baby milestone they reach) in a way that is impossible once more children arrive. Interestingly, a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that in bilingual families, first-born children were better at picking up language skills than younger siblings.
“My parents held me in such high esteem and pointed out all my so-called ‘strengths’ to my younger siblings,” explains Claire, 38. “It was a relief when I moved out in my early twenties and had room to make the mistakes that all young people make, without feeling like I had to keep up the ‘Miss Perfect’ act.”
Claire’s case is similar to many firstborns, who have the added responsibility of looking after younger siblings and taking on a more maternal role at home.
If you are the firstborn… Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect; remember it’s ok to make mistakes if you learn from them
14 American presidents have been firstborns, as well as Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Rhianna and Taylor Swift.
Birth Order: If you are the middle child
Second-born children are born into a family where there is always someone ahead of them. This can make them more relaxed (no pressure) and sociable as they have always had another child to get along with. Middle-children are often great negotiators (having to placate both older and younger siblings). They’re more likely to compromise and have a patient disposition. Sometimes a result of having to wait for parents to tend to older and younger siblings. They are ambitious but rarely selfish.
Not being the firstborn means the pressure is off when it comes to trailblazing (leave that up to the poor old firstborn). Second Borns are often people-pleasers; used to diplomacy and fitting in with younger and older siblings. They often have a large social circle (as they are able to fit in with everyone) and have many valued friendships.
Whilst a middle-child’s self-esteem may take a dent when it comes to parental attention, their ego’s aren’t generally as high as older siblings. This makes them great team players, extremely cooperative and trustworthy. If you have a secret – tell it to a middle-child! In terms of careers, middle-children don’t need to be micro-managed (after all they’ve muddled along on their own for a while now).
The so-called ‘Middle-child syndrome’ is where the middle-child thinks they receive less attention than the trailblazing firstborn or any younger siblings. Mum-of-three, Steph agrees it’s easy for them to get left out. “My middle-born son is sandwiched between an extremely sporty older brother and very dramatic younger sister! I often worry about him getting lost in the family dynamic because he’s never argues or causes any trouble!”
Of course there is some validity to middle-child syndrome. With each new child parents have, the attention has to be shared between all siblings and like always in life those who shout the loudest often get heard.
If you are a middle child… be careful that people don’t take advantage of your loyalty or that you don’t like conflict. It’s OK to shake things up once in a while even if people don’t expect it from you.
Famous middle children
These middle-children certainly stood out: John F Kennedy, Princess Diana, Bill Gates, Martin Luther King JR, Madonna, Stella McCartney and Henry VII.
Birth Order: If you are the Youngest Born
It may seem stereotypical to talk of youngest children being spoiled, or baby’d. But when you look at the trial and error parenting firstborns get, the youngest is often the last chance for parents to get it right! As such, youngest children are often highly social (they’ve only ever had tons of children around them), they are laid-back and often rebellious. Youngest children are often charming and because they’ve mixed with older kids all their lives, they are confident and can hold their own.
Youngest Child Pros
Having big boots to fill can often make youngest children more adventurous in life, instead of following the well-trodden path of older siblings. They will often pick careers that give them the spotlight they craved for while competing with the others. Youngest children are often much more lighthearted and less serious than their older siblings as pressure from parents is more relaxed. They can be fiercely independent; years of having to look after themselves as kids whilst their parents tended to violin practise, homework challenges, exam angst and the teenage tantrums of the older children.
Youngest child Cons
Youngest children who were babied can often lapse into childish behaviour as adults because they’ve learnt that being ‘the baby’ is cute and gets them attention. Older siblings will repeat endlessly that younger siblings are ‘allowed to do all the things we weren’t allowed’. This isn’t the fault of the child, but the parents who have learnt which battles to fight and which ones to leave at the front door! Youngest children can often feel they have big boots to fill. Especially when they get to school and teachers remember either their ‘rebellious’ or straight-A sibling!
If you are a youngest child… Try to ignore the comparisons people make with you and your older siblings – you are all your own people. If you’re 34 and still being treated like the ‘baby’ of the family, it might be time to remind everyone you’re Peter Pan – you grew up!
Famous Youngest Children
Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Harry Styles and Ryan Gosling.
Birth Order: Only-children
Only children are often mature beyond their years (as they spent a lot of time in adult company). They are confident, academic and like things a certain way. Further they are resourceful and self-motivated as they had to create their own fun rather than rely on siblings. They also value privacy and even though it’s an only-child cliche; only-children don’t like to share their stuff!
Only children can be really close to their parents as adults, stemming from all that undivided attention. Because of this closeness with adults, they get on well with authority figures. This can lead to flourishing careers as they are not intimidated by a senior boss or CEO. Only children are much happier to spend time alone and need time out when things get busy!
“I have a really loyal network of friends,” explains only-child Amy. “I think this is because they are almost substitute siblings for me. My husband always jokes he married a triplet because i’m so close to my two best friends.”
Studies have actually shown that only-children are less ‘agreeable’. Largely because of excessive attention from parents and fewer opportunities to interact with children the same age. The stereotype is that only-children can find it more difficult making friends, but researchers think they are more sensitive to their emotions and can overreact in situations. This could be because they haven’t grown up having sibling battles. Or the conflicts larger families have so they find reading others people’s emotions harder to decipher.
If you are an only-child… Push away any negative stereotypes of only children directed at you (spoilt, selfish, self-centred to name a few). Siblings can have these characteristics too and they are not reserved just for only-children.
Leonardo Di Caprio, Tiger Woods, Al Pacino, Selena Gomez, Natalie Portman, Daniel Radcliffe and Queen Victoria!