Who's On First?
How Children are Affected by Birth Order
March, 2007 - Issue #29
Since the early 20th century, psychologist Alfred Adler has promoted the theory that a child's place in the family may determine his/her personality. I was the oldest, with a brother three years younger and a sister five years younger. I remember my brother and I frequently picking on my sister because we felt that, as the youngest, she got away with everything. One time my brother and I shoved her into the toy box, sat on the lid and wouldn't let her out because we were righteously sure she never got in any trouble.

"Firstborn children are like only children, receiving all of their parents' ATTENTION, until the day comes when they must share the attention with a RIVAL baby brother or sister."
Firstborn children are like only children, receiving all of their parents' attention. They get more photographs taken, have their baby books filled in completely, have a party for every birthday... Until the day comes when they must share the attention with a rival baby brother or sister. Often, more is expected of the oldest and they may become authoritarian. They feel they have the right to boss around the young siblings, even that it's their job when mom and dad aren't around. This nature can follow into adulthood, becoming a part of their personality along with an inclination toward perfectionism and an extended sense of responsibility. When the firstborn has to suddenly vie for mom's affections they become skillful at getting the attention they feel is their right. First born adults maybe neat freaks, clean freaks, intense about success and extremely competitive in an attempt to keep their place in the order life. Statistics also show that firsts-borns win more Nobel Prizes, have higher IQs and are good problem solvers.

Second born children are born with the divided attention between mom, dad and sibling. Their world started out this way and they understand nothing different. Alfred Adler suggests that a first-born child has the role of a kind of pacemaker. They're the blueprint or example for how things are done and a second born or middle child often strives to be better than the older sibling. If they don't, in their perception, "win," they may experience feeling incompetent or inferior. These reoccurring feelings can create a need in the middle child to be the best at something: sports, games, grades, weight, humor, etc. The middle child's personality may include the trait of a conqueror in order to decrease feeling not seen or heard. Adult middle children have shared feeling troubled about find their place in life due to trouble in childhood finding a defined place in the family dynamic. Middle children are historically great athletes and often become famous as writers or actors.

Finally there's the last born, eternally called the baby of the family. My sister is 41 and that's still how my mother refers to her. Of course you can imagine the silent meaningful looks exchanged between my brother and I. The youngest child is often the biggest source of conflict. They can be pampered and spoiled and often tend to be easy going and popular because they're so sure of their place in the family. However, they can also be vulnerable, insecure and more of a risk taker in an attempt to gain freedom. Being the object of so much attention and affection, these children weren't allowed to develop their sense of identity for themselves. If they have more than one or two older siblings, they may have been primarily raised by a first or second born because mom was too busy. Sometimes those kids become show-offs or the class clown in order to stand out from the crowd or because they feel less is expected of them. Last-born children are known to take up causes. According to an article by Frank Sulloway, last-born children in history have freed slaves, overthrown dictators and continually advocate for others.

As parents we can keep an eye on the dynamic of our children's birth order and we can help our children adapt in a healthy way to their place in the family. We can maintain a balance. Children will either capitalize on their assigned role or resist it depending on their natural personality style. A parent paying attention can help birth order roles be a more positive experience.


Kim would love to hear about your birth order stories. E-mail her at
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