By: Steve Palmer
Don’t we all wonder why we are who we are? Why are some of us more outgoing, more conscientious, or more assertive than others, for instance? I know I have certainly been curious about this as I’ve tried to understand myself and others. It’s probably one of the reasons I went into the study of psychology in the first place! Anyone who has more than one child has probably already noticed how kids seem different right from the start. Read more >
As with so many human traits and habits, there are certainly some genetic forces at work; we inherit at least certain personality tendencies, but at the same time, our environment has a definite role in determining our personalities. Ultimately, most experts agree that there is a very complex interaction of genes and environment that go into the development of our personalities. We have at last transcended the old nature versus nurture debate. It’s both!
Yet, researchers are still trying to determine whether or not birth order, in fact, plays a role in personality.
What the research says:
Traditional theories have suggested that first-born children are typically conscientious, have strong or dominant personalities, and can tend to favor perfectionism. Middle kids are competitive (having to fight for attention in the family), flexible, and good negotiators. And the youngest (who are typically seen as used to getting attention) are selfish, but also confident, fun-loving, and sociable. Only children have been perceived as a mix between first and youngest kids – conscientious, sometimes spoiled, but often mature for their age.
There have been many recent research studies on the topic, but the debate continues. Where one researcher sees a significant impact from birth order, another suggests that their study was flawed and that no impact could be seen. One writer (Hartshorne, 2010 3) says there are almost 65,000 studies that in some way relate to the topic, so there’s plenty of room for debate!
So, can we make a clear case about how birth order affects personality? Scientifically speaking, no.
But what’s interesting in all the research that has been done, is that some scientists suggest that the real impact from birth order comes from our perceptions and expectations as much as reality, which means that we can have a direct impact on our children’s personalities.
Our expectations of our kids – and their interpretation of their place or role in the family – probably account for a fair amount of the personality characteristics that are noticed. Even one of the earliest proponents of birth order impact, Alfred Adler, stated “It is not, of course, the child’s number in order of successive births which influences his character, but the situation into which he is born and the way in which he interprets it” (Eckstein, 2010 1).
Here’s the bottom line: While some studies continue to suggest that there may be something to the intuitions and ideas presented in birth-order theories, these are really only part of a very complex picture.
So, now that we’ve unpacked the research, what do we need to know, as parents, about how to support our kids related to their position in the family?
Well, I think the best we can say is that while birth order may be one variable that makes a difference in our kids’ personalities, it is probably not any more of an impact than the many other variables in their lives – their in-born tendencies, the experience of having secure attachment with caregivers, the importance of a supportive and stimulating environment, opportunity to learn and practice the skills that will help them succeed (like social skills), and a healthy, positive peer group. Even if their objective place in the row of siblings has some impact, it’s likely to be ameliorated by the rest of their experiences.
Tailoring our parenting to our child’s unique temperament and developmental needs is where we need to focus our attention – and this may include the particular challenges of being an oldest or youngest. Noticing the extra responsibility an oldest child may take on or trying to avoid spoiling the youngest simply because they occupy the position of “baby” can be important things to take into account. But, in my opinion, the sorts of things that research has helped identify and encourage are really the best place to focus our parenting energies—with all of our children—no matter where they may fall, sequentially:
1. Creating a warm, caring, environment,
2. Practicing open communication,
3. Connecting our kids to other caring, responsible adults,
4. Getting involved in our kids’ activities,
5. Empowering our kids to contribute,
6. Keeping our kids safe,
7. Setting boundaries and high expectations,
8. Getting to know our kids’ friends,
9. And consistently being positive role models to them – these are the real things to focus on giving our kids.
For more information on the subject of birth order and personality:
1. Eckstein, D., Aycock, K. J., Sperber, M. A., McDonald, J., Van Wiesner, V., Watts, R. E., & Ginsburg, P. (2010). “A review of 200 birth-order studies: Lifestyle characteristics”. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 66(4), 408-434.
2. Frank Sulloway, PhD has written a number of books on this subject (especially well known is Born to Rebel), and is also well known as a researcher on this topic. See his website for some more information.
3. Hartshorne, J.K. (2010). “How birth order affects your personality”. Scientific American, January 2010.
4. Pinker, Steven. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin. Pinker is a professor at Harvard and I really enjoy all of his books. He does not give much space or credence to birth order in this book, but it is a fascinating read on human personality, especially from the angle of evolutionary psychology. And he’s just a plain good writer!