Birth Order – Why We Are the Way We Are

I remember it like it was yesterday.  It was my freshman year at Harvard, and I was going to the first lecture of “Justice” – one of the most popular classes on campus.  The lectures took place in Sanders Theater packed by over a thousand students since it’s only offered once every three years.  The first question the professor asked – please stand up if you’re the first born child in your family (inclusive of only children).  I literally felt like everyone in the entire theater stood up – except me since I’m a youngest child.  Why is it that such a high majority of Harvard students are first borns or only children? 

Because birth order matters according to Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book – Why You Are the Way You Are.  I’ve been reading it – here’s his framework on how the different orders generally are (noting that not every characteristic applies to every child):

First Child: perfectionist, reliable, conscientious, a list maker, well organized, hard driving, a natural leader, critical, serious, scholarly, logical, doesn’t like surprises, a techie.

Middle Child: mediator, compromising, diplomatic, avoids conflict, independent, loyal to peers, has many friends, a maverick, secretive, used to not having attention.

Youngest Child: manipulative, charming, blames others, attention seeker, tenacious, people person, natural salesperson, precocious, engaging, affectionate, loves surprises.

Only Child: little adult by age seven, very thorough, deliberate, high achiever, self-motivated, fearful, cautious, voracious reader, black-and-white thinker, talks in extremes, can’t bear to fail, has very high expectations for self, more comfortable with people who are older or younger.

One thought on “Birth Order – Why We Are the Way We Are

  1. As an only child and having four children, the first three born an year apart and the fourth ten years later, I have gained much from the insights that Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937) made in what many recognise today as the seminal study on the effects of birth order. Dr. C. George Boeree gives a fair summary in his excellent web pages on Personality Theories –

    “Adler must be credited as the first theorist to include not only a child’s mother and father and other adults as early influence on the child, but the child’s brothers and sisters as well. His consideration of the effects of siblings and the order in which they were born is probably what Adler is best-known for. I have to warn you, though, that Adler considered birth-order another one of those heuristic ideas — useful fictions — that contribute to understanding people, but must be not be taken too seriously.

    The only child is more likely than others to be pampered, with all the ill results we’ve discussed. After all, the parents of the only child have put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, and are more likely to take special care — sometimes anxiety-filled care — of their pride and joy. If the parents are abusive, on the other hand, the only child will have to bear that abuse alone.

    The first child begins life as an only child, with all the attention to him- or herself. Sadly, just as things are getting comfortable, the second child arrives and “dethrones” the first. At first, the child may battle for his or her lost position. He or she might try acting like the baby — after all, it seems to work for the baby! — only to be rebuffed and told to grow up. Some become disobedient and rebellious, others sullen and withdrawn. Adler believes that first children are more likely than any other to become problem children. More positively, first children are often precocious. They tend to be relatively solitary and more conservative than the other children in the family.

    The second child is in a very different situation: He or she has the first child as a sort of “pace-setter,” and tends to become quite competitive, constantly trying to surpass the older child. They often succeed, but many feel as if the race is never done, and they tend to dream of constant running without getting anywhere. Other “middle” children will tend to be similar to the second child, although each may focus on a different “competitor.”

    The youngest child is likely to be the most pampered in a family with more than one child. After all, he or she is the only one who is never dethroned! And so youngest children are the second most likely source of problem children, just behind first children. On the other hand, the youngest may also feel incredible inferiority, with everyone older and “therefore” superior. But, with all those “pace-setters” ahead, the youngest can also be driven to exceed all of them.

    Who is a first, second, or youngest child isn’t as obvious as it might seem. If there is a long stretch between children, they may not see themselves and each other the same way as if they were closer together. There are eight years between my first and second daughter and three between the second and the third: That would make my first daughter an only child, my second a first child, and my third the second and youngest! And if some of the children are boys and some girls, it makes a difference as well. A second child who is a girl might not take her older brother as someone to compete with; A boy in a family of girls may feel more like the only child; And so on. As with everything in Adler’s system, birth order is to be understood in the context of the individual’s own special circumstances. “


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