How Birth Order Shapes Personality

Oldest Children

When 4-year-old Jack refused to touch his sandwich unless his mom cut off the crust, 6-year-old Eric stepped in. "Jack, eat your crust," Eric said, with that big-brother air of authority. "I have to remind Eric he's not the parent," says their mother, Amy Bouma, of Springfield, Virginia.

Eric's reaction is typical, according to Sulloway. Firstborns model parents' behavior -- like Eric does when he "disciplines" Jack.

Because firstborns follow their parents' lead, they like taking charge and have oodles of confidence, says Kevin Leman, PhD, author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are (Revell). They don't have older siblings to make fun of them when they learn to tie their shoes or ride a bike. Adults take them seriously, and that boosts their confidence. When parents gush over every firstborn "first," it motivates oldest children to achieve. Proof of this: Leman recounts a corporate seminar he conducted for CEOs in which 19 of the 20 attendees were firstborns.

It's easy for high achieving firstborns to become perfectionists; after all, they see adults coloring inside the lines and pouring milk without spilling. Your firstborn wants everything just so, Leman says, and he wants to get things right the first time around. To this end, he may resist pouring his own milk or coloring on his own because he doesn't want to make mistakes. These perfectionist tendencies also mean firstborns may have trouble admitting when they're wrong.

It's not difficult to see how firstborns can become so tightly wound: new to their roles as Mom and Dad, first-time parents can be overprotective and tentative while at the same time strict and demanding, says Leman. This can translate to kids that overachieve.

Famous firstborns: Barak Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Penelope Cruz, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Middleton.

Out of the mouths of firstborns: "I never get away with anything -- not like my little brother does." "Why am I always responsible for my younger sister?"

Parenting Your Firstborn:

  • Parents tend to hold firstborns up as role models for younger siblings, and that can be a lot of pressure. "Watch for the effects of stress," cautions pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, MD, coauthor of Touchpoints 3 to 6: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development (Perseus Publishing). Be careful using "should" -- as in, "you should've known better."
  • While you're doling out extra responsibilities to your oldest, grant some privileges, too, like a later bedtime.
  • "It's easy to put too much responsibility on the firstborn," says Dr. Brazelton. Your oldest might volunteer to bring the baby a toy when he's fussy or hand you a diaper, but don't expect her to help all the time.

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