Birth order influences
Would your smart eldest child have been less clever if he were the youngest? Or would your middle child have been less stubborn if he were the eldest? How much does birth order determine who your children are? Shanda Luyt finds out
EVERY CHILD IS UNIQUE – all the way from crown to toe. So, why do so many firstborns across the globe share specific personalities while middle and youngest children fit other boxes?
Research has shown it time and again: the order in which your children are born plays a part in their personality.
Michael Grose, author of Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It, says a child’s position in the family impacts his personality, his behaviour, his learning and ultimately his earning power.
“Most people have an intuitive knowledge that birth order somehow has an impact on development, but they underestimate how far-reaching and just how significant that impact really is,” Michael says.
Cape Town psychologist Bettie Rall believes as the parent, you hold the magic wand to make your child a typical firstborn, middle child or lastborn.
“The influence of birth order is a social construct: it’s about how we handle our children. It has an effect on development and how your children view themselves,” Bettie says.
She says parents often treat their eldest, middle and youngest differently because of practical considerations such as time and money.
The influence of birth order is not set in stone, Bettie emphasises. If you understand how children typically react to being treated like an oldest, middle or youngest child, you could approach your parenting in a different way…
• Very responsible • Driven • Committed • Intense • Authoritative • Helpful • Born leader • Emotional • Perfectionist • Conservative • Doesn’t want to disappoint
Is there a bigger moment than the one when your first child is born?
The best of everything is bought new, and Dad has the soccer kit all set out for his future Bafana Bafana team member.
After the birth, the camera doesn’t stop flashing, the gogos fall over each other to hold the little one, and everyone celebrates every single milestone.
He’s surrounded with educational toys, gets hours and hours of quality time, and everyone believes he’s going to be a winner.
Parents (and the whole family) expect just the best from their eldest child, because they think he’s the most wonderful little thing on earth, Bettie explains.
“This child is used to being told the whole time how fantastic it is that he’s around. Parents have extremely high, almost unrealistic expectations, and this has an influence. Research shows your expectations have a considerable effect on how he fares,” she says.
These high expectations result in oldest children often becoming over-achievers.
“They’re driven go-getters, have lots of self-confidence and are often very domineering. At the same time, they’re very sensitive to criticism. They don’t want to disappoint their parents.
“You see the effect of all the attention and encouragement from early on: they quickly become independent, especially when the next child comes along. They master some skills earlier than their peers, have more self-confidence that they will succeed, and find it easier to tackle new things. In groups they often want to force their will on the other friends and take the lead.”
Red light The biggest danger is being overly responsible, Bettie says. “There’s a risk that your oldest takes on too much responsibility and then burns out. Another danger is that he’s domineering and bossy in groups, because oldest children strongly believe in their own point of view.”
How to help Teach your child that he doesn’t always need to be perfect, that it’s acceptable to fail sometimes, Bettie says. Teach him that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
❯ The IQ of oldest children is, on average, three points higher than that of their closest sibling.
❯ In one study, 41 percent of entrepreneurs were oldest children.
❯ Oldest children are apparently given more corporal punishment than younger children.
❯ Firstborns fare well in fields that require further academic study such as law, medicine or engineering.
❯ Firstborns run a greater risk of becoming obsessive-compulsive.
❯ More than half of all Nobel-prize winners in the history of the awards have been firstborns.
❯ Of the 23 first astronauts, 21 were eldest children. The other two were only children.
NEGLECTED MIDDLE CHILD?
• Excellent social skills
• Often rebellious
• Attuned to others’ needs
The miracle is not less with baby number two, but with two children, the time (and money) to find pleasure in the new bundle of joy is.
The album takes longer to fill up, and alone time with the little one is a luxury. Milestones are a given. The crux is that middle children get a lot less time and
attention than any of your other kids, because the older one is always there and the baby demands attention.
The consequences Middle children are sometimes extremely attentionseeking because of the lack of individual attention, Bettie says.
“They can seek attention in a positive way by, for instance, always wanting to be in the limelight, or in a negative way by rebelling. It’s the group of children that express themselves in the most negative way, because there’s always an older child who’s better than them and a younger one who gets all the attention because he’s cute.
“Middle children are usually suspicious and impatient. They can also be very stubborn to assert themselves. They expect no-one to listen to them and are for this reason prone to be louder than their peers in order to get noticed. They can also sometimes be very competitive because they feel they’re always second and never the best. At the same time, they’re also bad losers.”
On the positive side, middle children are usually very social and adaptable children – and peacemakers. “They compensate for the lack of attention at home in other places, so they like socialising. They also develop very good social skills and are very romantic partners later in life.”
Red light Your middle child is usually the one who becomes a problem child later and rebels to get attention, Bettie warns.
How to help You have to go to a lot of trouble to spend time with and pay attention to your middle child. “Make their firsts extra special, and take notice of their talents and special characteristics – praise them for these, and go on ‘dates’ just the two of you,” Bettie says.
MOM’S CUTE LITTLE BABY
• Full of self-confidence • Relaxed • Independent • Immature • Creative and unconventional
• Low expectations of self
• Cares about others
• Manipulative and often spoilt
• Good sense of humour: natural “clown”
It’s your last chance to spoil a baby, and you make the most of it. The whole family partakes of the spoiling.
If the children fight about toys, you’re quick to ask them to give in to his wish, because, “He’s still small.” He calls the shots like a prince – and you allow that to happen. You’re less strict in raising
him than you were with your older children.
The consequences “Youngest children stay dependent for longer, because they’ll always be the baby of the house,” Bettie says. “They later expect to be served – the whole world is their slave! – and they expect this until they’re adults.
“They expect the whole world to dance to their tune, because that’s what happens at home. They expect to get their will because ‘they’re still small’ and feel cheated if society doesn’t want to give it to them. They don’t easily accept responsibility.”
On the positive side, they usually have lots of self-confidence, because they’re “special” and get attention. Because everyone constantly took care of them, they’re also caring people, Bettie explains. “They tend to be immature, but they’re more open to taking risks and for new experiences. They’re usually underachievers because they don’t trust their own opinions and perceptions – everyone always contradicts what they say. Parents also expect less from their youngest ones, so they also expect less from themselves. But you also get a group that’s the very opposite: they want to outperform their peers and then sometimes become overachievers.”
Red light Youngest ones can be very manipulative – and spoilt, Bettie says. “They could be self-centred. They’re often scared to give their views because they’re the smallest at home and aren’t always taken seriously.”
How to help The most important thing is to watch out from early on that the whole family doesn’t serve baby.
“Don’t give your youngest his wish just because he’s small. Give him the same responsibilities you gave the others at the same age. And listen to his opinion. He has to learn it’s valuable.”
THE FACTORS THAT PLAY A PART
Gap If there’s a big gap between children, the second or third could be treated like the eldest, and he might exhibit eldest-child traits, Bettie says.
The smaller the gap, the greater the impact of birth order. Researchers have found that if there’s more than a fiveyear gap between the first and second children, the second child becomes like an oldest child.
Between later children, the age gap has less of an influence on their personality.
Gender The influence of birth order is usually greater if all the children are of the same gender.
The first daughter to come after an older brother will also often behave like an oldest child and vice versa, especially if there’s a big age gap.
Dysfunctional family In families with lots of tension, like after a divorce, the influence of birth order is often more clearly visible. The oldest will for instance act even more responsibly and the youngest more like a baby.
Parents’ birth order Your own position compared to that of your siblings could play a part in how you handle your own children. You might have a particular understanding for the child that shares your position in the order and perhaps struggle to connect with your other children.