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The Burden of Birth Order

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 An interview with Meri Wallace

My four and seven year-old sat down to draw. My oldest son picked up a pencil around two and has been drawing ever since. His five years of experience shows. His early squiggles now take recognizable forms and the faces of his characters show emotion: happiness, panic, elation. My youngest grows frustrated with his own work in comparison to his older brother’s.  I take him into a room and pull out an old archive of his older brother’s art.  I show him the drawings of wide spirals and simple lines. I see my youngest relax a bit as he takes it all in. Siblings are inevitably in constant comparison to each other.  How does birth order ultimately shape who we are?  Author of Birth Order Blues, Meri Wallace, gives us some serious insight into the inescapable influence of siblings. — Julia Posey, TMC Web Content Producer

TMC:  What are the myths and what are the truths about the personality differences between siblings as determined by their birth order?
MW:  It is absolutely true. There really are personality traits that people have that are definitely related to their birth order. If you study lots of first-borns, or middle children or last-borns you are going to find a lot of similar personality characteristics relative to their spot in the family. And this all has to do with the unique experiences that each child has in the same families. The birth order actually forms these personality characteristics.

Are personalities affected by birth order?  How?
Yes, tremendously. Not to say they are not shaped by other experiences in the family, but birth order has a powerful impact.

First-born:
Everyone’s really excited. It’s the first child. There’s lots of time to read and research prior to the anticipated birth. Parents take time to find the best mobile to hang in the crib, research what are the best strollers. Everything is geared to the arrival of this first child. Then after the first child is born, there is a tremendous amount of focus and attention on the child. Everything they’re doing, people are snapping pictures, many more than the second and third child. The first-born has all this attention. Everything that this child does is like a miracle. As the child grows, there’s more time invested, more attention than the later children. Also if the first-born is the only child for a couple of years, he or she gets all the money and resources allotted for children.

Some of the challenges of the first-born are that the parents are observing everything that child does. They want things to go so well, not only as a reflection of them, but they deeply want this child to do well. It’s the most important thing they’ve ever done in this world. But what happens is that they start watching everything. Sit up at the table, fold your napkin the right way. You know that drawing…that’s not a tree. Let me show you. Let me help you. What can happen as a result is though the child may be very self-confident and loved because of all the other positives, s/he can also feel very pressured to do things perfectly. Hence, you get personality characteristics like perfectionism, workaholics. They must do things perfectly. And they expect perfectionism in others as well.

Middle child:
The middle child is really the younger child, who is often the second-born, but could be the third or fourth. The middle child has some positives. They are born into a family that already has another child and he or she learns how to be social at a very young age, how to share, how to take turns, how to interact with other kids. The middle kid tends to be more social. Also the parents tend to be more relaxed with this child. They could help their first child survive to the age of three, four or five, so they have confidence in their parenting and feel much more comfortable with this child. However, the middle child has some problems and challenges in that they are not the oldest. And the oldest is always doing something new and requires a lot of the family’s attention. Like going on the first sleep over, choosing a language to study at school. Everything is always new and the parents are always giving attention to the oldest. And you’ve got the baby who gets attention because the baby needs more help. So the middle child gets what they tend to call the middle child syndrome feeling where they don’t feel they get enough attention. One of the personality characteristics that you might see of a middle child is someone who tries to draw attention. And it could be in a positive way as in becoming an artist or by having lots of friends. Or you get middle children who act up and don’t do well in school or get in the wrong crowd of kids or dye their hair purple to get some attention. Identity is a big issue for the middle child. They feel like they are getting lost in the shuffle. Dad might be helping the older one with homework. Mom may be putting the younger one to sleep. And the middle child is kind of left a little bit on his own.

Last-born:
And the youngest child can develop a feeling of inadequacy. The youngest is sitting on the tricycle while the oldest and older children are on two-wheelers. The youngest tends to think, there’s something wrong with me. I’m flawed. Obviously, that could be the middle child, being younger too. The youngest child is often left behind. The older children don’t want to play with him because he is just younger and can’t keep up with them. The younger child might be highly competitive to reach the capabilities of older siblings and feel adequate.

The positives of the last-born are that the babies tend to get a lot of attention. They can get the beloved attention of the parents and the older children if things go really well. The youngest and middle child tend to have less pressure put on them by the parents. They are kind of left to grow up a little more on their own because everyone is so preoccupied with the first-born. They may end up becoming very creative because they have to fill their own time.

Why does the middle child birth spot hold such a stigma?
The issue of identity is harder for the middle child. I’m not oldest. I’m not the youngest. Who am I in this family? When parents introduce their children to people, they say this is my oldest child, this is my youngest child. The middle child doesn’t feel like he or she has equal weight. Middle children often act out because they are so upset by this.  Or they may work to get positive attention. Children show their feelings through their behavior.

Again a child who actively seeks to develop an identity can be very creative and go out there and do great things because s/he is freer than the first-born whom everyone monitors so closely.  There are also mitigating circumstances that affect personality development as a result of birth order.  One thing that often happens is that if the first-born rebels because of parental pressure, s/he might be the one who is not doing well in school, so the middle child jumps in and excels in order to individuate his/her self.

Why do kids feel the need to be different from their siblings?
Kids feel a need to survive in a family. Attention from parents equals survival.  They try to learn from the older one what works and what doesn’t work. So the middle child, or second-born, might grab the spotlight that way.

Then there are other things, like how far apart they are, the size of the family, the gender of the child. If you have a girl who is the first-born in a family where the boy is the most important, the second child may be treated more like a first-born. In some families the youngest girl is the one who is supposed to take care of the parents. There are all kinds of cultural differences. And in step-families, you can be the first-born in one family and move to a different position in another.

And an only child is kind of like a first-born and a last-born. So he or she has some of the characteristics of both.

How do age differences and spacing play out?
In terms of sibling rivalries, studies have shown the closer in age the kids are, the more rivalry. If you have two of the same gender, it’s going to be a little harder. If they are opposite gender, it tends to be easier because each one might have a more solid identity based on gender.

How do parents play a role in this?  What can parents do to nurture their little individuals effectively?
As a parent, you can do things that enhance the problem or you can do things that will help these children meet the challenges of birth order.

The purpose of my book, Birth Order Blues, is to guide parents on what they can do for each child in a family, based on their birth order.  The general ideas are that with the firstborn, parents need to be aware and not pressure the child so much that if he gets 97%, don’t ask what happened to the other 3%. Go easier. Also, for the firstborn should not always have to take care of the younger siblings or s/he will develop tremendous resentment.

In addition, the younger child doesn’t know that when the older child was her age, she couldn’t ride a two-wheeler. Her legs were shorter, too. Eventually, her legs grew. Children need those explanations. “It’s hard for you to be the younger child. Your older sister is riding a two-wheeler. You’re not. But don’t worry, you’re going to grow. Your legs will get longer. She couldn’t do it either when she was your age.” We tend to think that it’s obvious, but it’s not obvious to children. And that’s another reason why you get the personality characteristics. For example, the younger child feeling inadequate because the younger child doesn’t understand that it’s the age difference. The younger child says, “Oh, she can do so much more than me. I’m not as good.” So that’s where the parent needs to step in and explain to the child, “You’re feeling this way because of your position in the family.”

To the firstborn, you could say, “Let me tell you the family story, first there was you, me and daddy. We had lots of time and attention for you. Now we have another child, so it’s harder. It’s hard for you to share the attention. Maybe you feel angry and sad about that. And when you do, talk to me.” You see, I think a lot of parents are afraid if they bring it up they are going to make the child feel that way. But the child is feeling that way anyway.

If you don’t have these conversations, children really suffer from the experience. And they develop some unnecessary characteristics. For example, the oldest child ends up becoming very bossy and controlling of the younger child. And the seed of that comes from the initial feeling of being supplanted. If you talk to the child and say, “I think you’re bossing the baby around because you feel a little angry. It’s hard for you that you’re not the only child.” With that kind of dialogue going on, the feelings don’t need to be acted out. So some negative characteristics may not develop at all.

If you talk to the middle child, “I know how hard it is for you.” And then you work really hard to try and give that middle child alone time, make special dates, and arrange for activities for which s/he can excel and get a lot of attention.  You can work against the difficulty and make it easier for the child rather than letting the negative characteristics develop. If you help children to see what their experience is, put it into words and give them support for it, and you will make their experience a better one. You start to notice, wait a minute, we’ve been talking about this new school for over an hour. Or we’ve been helping the older one with homework for the whole night, but we’re leaving out the younger child. Let’s put the younger child next to the older child with a book and we can call it his homework. You can change the outcome. And you can diminish the negative characteristics from developing.

Should we see this as a “problem” to work through or just as the way things are?
Some people say sibling rivalry just exists. Just let your kids work it out. And my answer to that is: no. It is a reality in families that children have to share their parents and they have to share the resources. And they don’t have the skills to deal with all of this on their own. How does that little kid on the tricycle interpret the situation? If you don’t help him, he’s going to come out with the wrong interpretation. By dealing with birth order issues, it can help with problems in the future. And it makes their lives better in the present.

Meri Wallace is the author of Birth Order Blues (Henry Holt & Co.).  She is the founder and director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development. Her work includes a featured column for “Sesame Street Parents” and a consultant for the PBS’s Children Television Workshop. She has appeared on Montel Williams, the BBC and the Fox Family Channel (with T. Berry Brazelton) to name a few.

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Comments (4)

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  4. Rachel

    Thanks for this great article – very helpful and really speaks to some of the struggles we’re currently having right now with our kids. And some helpful advice from the author!