‘The spoilt only child’, ‘the responsible firstborn’, ‘the pampered last-born’, ‘the invisible middle child’ — Is this just stereotyping or is it really true?
By Dr Snigdha Bhattacharyya and Dr Nithya Poornima
We may have heard or been a part of conversations attributing behaviour to order of birth. But, have you ever wondered how and why certain behaviours came to be associated with birth order? And, are these attributes fixed or can they be changed?
Birth order and its impact on personality and behaviour has been an area of interest among researchers and psychologists since a long time. Alfred Adler (1870–1937) was one of the pioneers to theorise on birth order and its effects. His theory acted as a platform for various subsequent works in this area, including books written by Kevin Leman ‘The Birth Order: Why you are the way you are’ (1985), and Frank Sulloway ‘Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives’ (1996). Sulloway elaborated on birth order and its influence on an individual’s personality in his theory the ‘Big five personality traits’. All these theorists have described the typical behaviours and traits based on birth order and how they manifest. Let’s read on for a better understanding.
They are considered to be controlling, reliable and structured. They are also cautious and often grow up to be achievers and leaders. Because of being the first child, firstborns receive complete attention from their parents for a longer period. This exposes them to various opportunities of development that often help them become achievers and leaders. Apart from this, being entrusted with the task of nurturing their younger siblings develops in them a sense of responsibility and makes them more reliable. However, being a firstborn also has its disadvantages. Parents tend to be cautious and controlling when dealing with their first child. Firstborns also experience the phenomenon of ‘dethronement’, or the loss of their privileged position, with the birth of a younger sibling, which often results in an ambivalent bond of ‘love and hate’ with the younger sibling.
They are considered people pleasers. Often middle-borns have a large social circle and play the role of peacemakers when tempers run high. There is also a perception that a middle-born is the most neglected child. However, this turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as the neglect prompts the middle child to set out in search of his own tribe and, in the process, make a lot of friends. Middle-borns are often considered to have some qualities of both the firstborns and the last-borns. This could be due to playing the role of both the elder as well as the younger sibling.
They are seen as fun-loving, uncomplicated, outgoing, attention-seeking and manipulating. As a result of the prior experience gained from parenting the elder sibling, parents deal with the last-born in a more mature and calmer manner. Also, because of their experience, parents feel more confident and give their last-born more opportunities to explore the world around them. Because of this, last-borns grow up to be confident and outgoing. They also learn and gain experience by modelling the older sibling. While last-borns idolise their older sibling(s), they also try to wriggle out of the shadow of the older sibling(s) by adopting manipulative tactics.
With changing trends in family structure, the number of families with ‘the only child’ are increasing. The only child is often considered mature, perfectionist, and diligent, and possesses inherent leadership qualities. They experience almost all the privileges of first-borns, like enjoying the undivided attention of parents, which makes them feel secure and confident, thereby making them good leaders. While being in the company of parents makes them mature and adult-like, parents often have high expectations from the only child.
In fact, a research titled ‘Birth Order Effects on Personality and Achievement Within Families’ by Delroy L Paulhus et al on 1022 families also largely agreed with other theories on birth order. This study, published in Psychological Science (1999), found firstborns to be achievers and conscientious, while last-borns were found to be rebellious, liberal and agreeable.
The above-mentioned qualities based on birth order give a general outline and may be applicable at a generic level. For example, the middle-borns have a large social circle as they are often sidelined in a family due to a commanding older sibling and a demanding younger sibling. However, human behaviour and personality depend on many other factors, including temperament, family environment, approach to parenting, socioeconomic background, age gap between siblings and gender of the siblings. In fact, the birth order theories may also not be applicable in unique situations like in cases of twins, adoption, in families with step children or with a special child, as the dynamics of these situations are completely different.
So, what creates a change in the trajectory of birth order attributes?
One definite factor would be ‘Parenting’. Allowing children to express their feelings, both positive and negative, about their sibling(s) instead of suppressing them goes a long way. Similarly, spending quality time with a child doing a bonding task instils a sense of feeling wanted and secure. Finally, and most importantly, allowing the child to act her age irrespective of birth order makes the real difference.
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