How Understanding the Birth Order Effect Will Make You a Better Parent
If you have more than one child in your home—or have siblings yourself—you’ve probably noticed that they have vastly different personalities. While genetics and many other factors certainly play a role, birth order may have a lot to do with those differences.
Experts believe that birth order can affect not only personality but academic performance, career choices, relationships, and even overall success in life. Psychologists and scientists have studied the effect of birth order since the 19th century when psychotherapist Alfred Adler pioneered the theory. “Whenever I have studied adults,” Adler wrote, “I have found impressions left on them from their early childhood lasting forever. The position in the family leaves an indelible stamp upon the style of life.”
This birth order effect seems to begin with the children’s parents. You may believe that you treat all your children the same, but studies show that parenting styles evolve. The theory is that parents tend to be more lenient with each child. And as they become more efficient with daily parenting tasks and instructions, the time they spend with each subsequent child decreases.
Being aware of these subtle changes and the role that birth order plays in families can help parents better support each child individually. Take a look at some of the common birth order personality traits and learn how you can adjust your parenting for each child’s role:
The Oldest Child
Firstborn children enjoy the enthusiastic attention of not only their parents but their extended family as well. All are eager to shower the oldest with gifts and take note of every first event in the child’s life. This enthusiasm may fade with each child thereafter. And the extra attention often lasts throughout the eldest child’s life, as he will be the first to enter each new stage of growing up. As a result of all this attention and praise, the firstborn tends to exhibit more leadership qualities and self-confidence. The oldest may be more of a perfectionist, striving to fulfill the high expectations of his parents, which may also make him more reliable and obedient. These children are high achievers who often outperform their siblings later in life. They may choose authoritative careers, such as a newscaster, astronaut, engineer, accountant, doctor, or lawyer. In fact, more CEOs, astronauts, and U.S. presidents have been first-born children. Winston Churchill, J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were all the oldest in their families.
Tips for Parenting Your First Born Child:
Your eldest may feel more pressure to live up to your expectations, so watch for signs that he or she is under too much stress, is overextending himself, or doing something he doesn’t enjoy merely to please you. The eldest is often called on to be the babysitter in the family, but be careful not to take advantage in this area or expect her to take on a co-parenting role. Don’t expect perfection and be sure to praise effort rather than achievements. When they’re young, work on ways to help the feeling of displacement that oldest children feel when their younger siblings are born. Try showing them their own baby photos and remind them that they too received a lot of attention as babies.
Academic Support for Your Oldest Child:
Since your eldest is aiming to please, he will likely get homework and assignments completed without much prodding from you. And the “teaching role” the eldest tends to take on with younger siblings will help to solidify academic concepts. But you’ll want to ensure your high-achiever continues to be challenged in school. If you see signs of boredom or dissatisfaction, consider school alternatives to ensure his education matches his potential. Online learning is a great choice for such self-directed, high-performing students because they can learn faster at their own pace.
The Middle Child
This is arguably the toughest position in the family. Parents can be so busy with the beloved firstborn and adored youngest that the middle child can be left feeling neglected and unloved. Middle children will often become polar opposites of the firstborn, choosing to find a completely different path to carve out a separate identity. Their more difficult family position can make them less spoiled and perhaps better equipped for adult life. They can be rebellious and independent. Feeling less accepted by their family, middle children tend to form stronger relationships with their friends and they are both loyal and competitive. Experts say that the personality traits of middle children can vary, but they are more likely to be nonconformists and leave home earlier. Middle children may choose careers that involve negotiation, often becoming nurses, firefighters, and police officers. Princess Diana, Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Abraham Lincoln were all middle children.
Tips for Parenting Your Middle Child:
It’s especially important that your middle child sees that you are treating everyone fairly. Be extra sensitive to any special attention that you or extended family members may be giving to your other children and work to make up for it with your middle one. Watch your child for signs that he may be feeling excluded from the family and try to seek out his input and participation in family events. Carve out time to spend with just your middle child and praise him for any individual achievements. And don’t forget to take photos of your middle one, so your phone/photo album isn’t filled with just the eldest or youngest!
Academic Support for Your Middle Child:
In an attempt to stand out, middle children may avoid education if they see their older siblings excelling at school. Be sure to encourage your middle child’s academic efforts and try to keep him engaged in school work. The more involved you can be in your middle one’s education the better. Middle children especially benefit from the extra one-on-one attention they receive from their parental Learning Coach in online schools, but any extra support you can provide will be helpful.
The Youngest Child
The babies of the family have a reputation for being pampered and spoiled. Unlike the middle child who can face the world unafraid, the youngest may be in for a rude awakening. They’re used to being the center of attention and they like to find ways to stand out among their more accomplished siblings. These often outgoing and sociable kids tend to take on the role of the family clown. In fact, many successful comedians are the youngest of their family, including Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Jon Stewart. So while the eldest may dominate the White House and space travel, the easygoing youngest rules the humor stratosphere! Since they get along well with others, lastborn children tend to choose professions where they talk with people, such as middle management, journalism, and sales. It isn’t all rosy for the youngest, though, as they may be criticized by their siblings and not taken seriously by family members. As a result, they may try to make a contribution in the world and seek to help others through careers in medicine, non-profit, and social work.
Tips for Parenting Your Youngest Child:
Teach your youngest independence with chores and responsibilities. If you continue to baby the youngest, he may become too dependent and lack maturity as an adult. Avoid the temptation to give the youngest preferential treatment or less discipline than the other siblings receive. And be extra aware of how your older children are treating your youngest. You may need to referee to keep things civil and ensure the youngest has a voice and feels respected. Encouraging youngest children is also important as they may suffer from a lack of self-confidence since they compare themselves to their older siblings.
Academic Support for Your Youngest Child:
If you have a tendency to be more lenient with your youngest, be sure that doesn’t extend to the classroom. Don’t let homework or studying slip, as your fun-loving youngest may be inclined to take a less serious approach to school. And independence and responsibility are especially important traits for the youngest to learn, so don’t let parental and sibling support go too far when it comes to assignments.
The Only Child
Children who grow up without siblings share many characteristics with the eldest. They aim to please their parents, and they are usually high achievers academically and in their careers. The undivided attention and extra adult-time they receive makes them more confident and expressive. But they can also be perfectionists who have a hard time taking criticism. Without siblings to entertain or otherwise distract them, only children can also be more imaginative than other children. They may choose careers in entertainment or where they can have autonomy, such as in medicine, the law, architecture, and teaching. Charles Lindbergh, Cole Porter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Leonardo da Vinci, and President Obama were all the only children in their families.
Tips for Parenting Your Only Child:
Lacking siblings may make it harder for these kids to learn to share and interact with others, so arrange lots of play dates. Watch for signs that your child is becoming a perfectionist or is overly critical and work to manage expectations. Take time to laugh and enjoy playtime with your only child, as these children can be so serious and eager to excel that they feel too pressured to take a breath and enjoy life.
Academic Support for Your Only Child:
You are probably already investing a lot of your time into your child’s education and seeing great results. Similar to the oldest child in a family of siblings, only children are usually advanced in school, so be vigilant to ensure that your child stays academically challenged. If that is not the case, look into alternative schools, such as an online learning environment.
Keep in mind that while birth order seems to play a large role in a child’s personality and tendencies, there are still many other factors that can change the dynamics such as gender, family size, age differences, and, of course, the unique identity of every child. But still, it may be helpful to be aware of the effects of birth order so you can provide for each of your children’s needs.
Do you see any of these common birth-order tendencies in your own children or in yourself? Let us know in the comments section.
Elizabeth Street is a writer and managing editor for Learning Liftoff. For the past 20 years, she has written newsletter and website content for nonprofit and corporate organizations on such topics as the plight of children of prisoners worldwide, the lack of prenatal care for mothers in developing countries, and child mentoring programs. She has a particular interest in the importance of providing all children with a quality education regardless of their family’s financial status or background. A native of Virginia, Elizabeth is a graduate of James Madison University and loves animals, with particular fondness for her two cats, Oscar and Emmy.