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The Birth-Order Theory

Karen Rile

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Published: February 7, 2014 at 12:32 AM [UTC]

The Theory of Birth Order

The other day my youngest daughter sent me a Facebook message—which is an event in itself because when she’s away at college she doesn’t call or text much. She’s always been that way: independent and self-reliant, ever since she was a little girl. So when the notification lit up on my phone screen, my heart jumped. I clicked right away to see what was up.

In your next blog, can you debunk this stupid theory?

She’d attached a link to a recent Huffington Post article, “The Achiever, the Peacemaker and the Life of the Party: How Birth Order Affects Personality”, a pop psychology piece ending with some breezy advice about adjusting one’s parenting style to compensate for personality differences driven by birth order.

“…understanding that a first-born child feels highly responsible allows you to lighten their load and recognizing that the baby of the family is experiencing a more lenient environment can help you be more diligent in your discipline.”

Naturally, my youngest would be irritated by the tone of this essay, which advocates preemptive, “diligent” discipline for youngest children, who are, supposedly, charming, irresponsible, and spoiled—“the life of the party.” Well, that’s not her. She is serious-minded, self-motivated, a bit of an introvert, and she almost never asks for help or favors. Except this time: please debunk the theory. I could see her point. I promised to get on it.

Then I got to thinking. The birth-order theory, brainchild of early 20th century psychotherapist Alfred Adler, is yet another reflection of our deep human urge to catalogue everyone and everything. Of course, it's just a hypothetical construct with very little research to back it up. But life, including family life, seems more manageable broken down into discrete units. It’s why we invented kingdom, phylum, Köchel numbers, and the Dewey Decimal System. It’s why we love our Myers-Briggs tests and Cosmo quizzes. (Which Downton Abbey Character Are You?) We jump at the opportunity to sort and tag ourselves, even when the categories don’t make sense (I mean, really? I got Thomas.)

The birth-order theory is so ingrained in our collective imagination that even a second-grader might reference it as if it were a fact of nature. Around the time my youngest girl was born, I remember her oldest sister, who was seven, pronouncing the four-year-old to be a “typical middle child”. The imperious sound of Number One's voice (typical oldest child!) made the adults in earshot burst out laughing.

But when I look closer at my own four kids, I find them too slippery to pin to familiar archetypes. One middle child is not so conciliatory; the other’s a natural leader. The youngest isn't “the life of the party”; the oldest is off in her own world hardly interested in dominating her sibs. Same with other families I know—friends, the family I grew up in. The personality stereotypes are fun to play with, but they’re reductive, over-simplified, and often quite wrong. In other words, nothing to base your parenting philosophy on.

And yet, the accident of birth order has had a profound effect on my children's lives, if only by happenstance of the very different sets of opportunities and advantages they received. When our oldest was little, her whims naturally dictated our family's interests. It was her idea to study violin, at age five. Her little sisters were swept along for the ride, but it's not clear to us that music would have become a central part of our family's life if not for her initial, almost capricious, request.

What if her initial impulse had been to study dance, or horseback riding? This spring, her little sister, our third daughter will graduate with a conservatory degree in violin performance. If Number Three had been born first, likely she would not have been introduced to music so naturally, and at such a young age. Would she even be a musician? As a small girl, my my violinist-daughter demonstrated considerable talent for physical coordination and excelled in gymnastics, figure skating, diving, and capoeira. If she'd been born first, our family's energies would probably have been channeled differently. Now my oldest (who abandoned violin at sixteen) is deeply and professionally involved in aerial theater, a discipline she came to relatively late. Imagine the career advantages she'd have today, had she been born third in family whose extracurricular energies were devoted primarily to gymnastics, rather than music.

Personality differences aside, my older girls enjoyed a childhood during which they were able to investigate new interests as they occurred to them. They had the advantage of being in a position to explore. They set the agenda that the little ones inherited. By turn, my younger daughters' birthright was a vast home library of well-thumbed children's books; a cabinet already stocked with every artist material they could want.

Even better, the younger girls received the rich benefits of age-inappropriate exposure to art, music, and sports as they were dragged along to their older sisters' activities. I would never have thought to expose three- and four-year-olds to classical violin recitals, or Japanese language class, or ice skating lessons. I wouldn't have taken toddlers to a natural science museum, or a six-year-old to see Othello. But that toddler grew up to be a glass artist, who continually experiments with the physics and chemistry of her medium. And the six-year-old, swept along with her sisters to so many Shakespearean plays, grew up to be a playwright.

So, did I debunk the theory? Or did I just replace it with my own (more-obvious, less fanciful theory?)  The latter, I guess, but what else would you expect? I'm an oldest child, after all.



From Jim Hastings
Posted on February 7, 2014 at 2:37 AM
How individual we all are -- just can't be pigeonholed. My experience may help you debunk the theory.

Years ago, I heard: Eldest = bossy. Youngest = spoiled baby. Middle = nobody special. Well, not always. I was the middle child. Won't presume to be anybody special, but I was definitely the most individualist and geeky of the four kids. And I could be quite bossy as a little one. Mom would jokingly say, "Don't give orders, General Motors."

I have to believe spacing can also make quite a difference. The twins were 6 y/o when I arrived and big enough to help care for me. I was 5 when Baby Sis arrived and big enough to help with her.

No concerts or recitals -- or Shakespearean plays -- for me at such a tender age; but I regularly heard classical music at home on radio and recordings -- even before preschool. Thank goodness our parents played it. Big Sis loves this music, too. Big Bro', her twin, doesn't care for it. Baby Sis is somewhere in between. You can plant the seeds, but different soils produce different results.

It was my preadolescent idea to start violin lessons. My parents didn't have to remind me to practice. In fact, sometimes they would have to remind this little geek that bedtime was coming up and it was time to stop.

Unlike your firstborn, I didn't abandon violin. I completed a performance degree, as your third is about to do -- although, at 21, I decided not to go pro after all. I continue to practice and play about 3 hours a day. It's just part of what and who I am.

From Scott Cole
Posted on February 7, 2014 at 2:47 AM
No discussion of birth order should neglect Frank Sullaway's
"Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dymanics, and Creative Lives." The book, published in 1996, garnered much critical acclaim by the likes of evolutionary biologist E.O Wilson.

I'm not sure your assertion that "Of course, it's just a hypothetical construct with very little research to back it up" is entirely true, as Sullaway's work was said to be backed by extensive research.

The question of how or whether to tailor parenting to different children is another matter, as individuals often stray from statistical models (Sullaway does deal with exceptions in his book, such as Mao).

Posted on February 7, 2014 at 1:52 PM
Maybe theories really arise from the need of the theorist to say something.

I'm the fifth child of 7. The eldest was always casual, kind, recessive, introspective and sensitive - and became an artist. [Not doing so well on either theory.] The second was dominant, independent, self-willed, calculating, relatively insensitive and went into business taking the corporate route. The third left school early and is a self-made business success, wheeler-dealer - who has blossomed into sensitivity very late in life. The fourth is smart, bookish, musical, but recessive from being in control and became a successful academic physician. Skipping me, the two youngest are quiet and social, disinclined to strive and happy to live families with only limited achievement of artistic goals.

Thus, we simply don't fit into any theory - maybe they are limited to moderate sized families - three or so - where there is more overlap of the ages. In ours the youngest was growing up after the eldest had left home. I guess its possible that such theories have some predictive value when you look at populations but are really irrelevant at the individual family or child level. In ours the biggest factor to outcome was, I think, genetic as if we followed our kismet. The second was how our parents treated us - the boys were far more likely to be encouraged to strive and the girls to care. That's probably no longer the case - but surely there are still differences.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 8, 2014 at 4:22 AM
Even if this slop turned out to be half-true (which seems the best it can hope for), adjusting your parenting around it? If there truly is a natural birth-order dependence on personality, why not let nature take its course?

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