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How Birth Order Shapes Personality

What You Need to Know About Birth Order
What You Need to Know About Birth Order

The only child has trouble sharing, the oldest is bossy, everyone babies the baby, and the middle child is -- well, stuck in the middle. Are these merely stereotypes, or is there some truth to birth order differences? Although this theory only explains a small chunk of why we are the way we are, those differences definitely exist, claims birth order expert Frank Sulloway, PhD, author of Born to Rebel (Pantheon).

Personality doesn't hinge on the biological fact that a child is born first or seventh. "It's the roles siblings adopt that lead to differences in behavior," Sulloway says. Strategies children use to get parents? attention differ depending on their position in the family lineup. And parents tend to reinforce these roles, whether they realize it or not. Here's an explanation as to why your child may develop the traits he does, depending on where he falls in the family tree.

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.

Cathy Swan, of Lexington, Massachusetts, says her middle child, 4-year-old Hobie, is the complete opposite of his older sister, Cate, 6. "I can count on Cate to get herself ready for kindergarten -- not Hobie. He's always asking me to help him with things he already can do, like putting on his jacket or carrying his preschool bag out to the car." And even though Hobie loves playing with his 1-year-old twin brothers, "he doesn't try and take care of them, like his sister does," Swan says.

Leman sees this frequently with middle-born children. "Once a role is filled by the firstborn, the second-born will seek out a role that's completely the opposite," he says. Because of this, middle children are the hardest to label, since their personalities emerge in response to how they perceive the next-oldest sibling in the family. If the older sibling is a parent-pleaser, the middle child might rebel to get attention. The middle child is the hardest birth order to categorize, but whatever traits he develops play off the first born, says Leman.

In the eyes of the middle child, oldest siblings reap all the privileges and the babies get away with everything, so middles learn to negotiate to get what they want. "Middle-borns are the most willing to wheel and deal," Sulloway says. They are agreeable, diplomatic, and compromising, and they handle disappointment well. They have realistic expectations, are the least likely to be spoiled, and they tend to be the most independent. Because they often feel left out, they tend to gravitate toward friends outside the family.

Famous middles: Donald Trump, Elijah Wood, Bill Gates, Princess Diana, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Out of the mouths of middle children: "No one understands me or listens to what I say." "My big brother gets to do all the fun stuff first, and everyone babies my little sister. I'm left out."

Parenting Your Middle Child

  • Thank her when she steps in to mediate a sibling squabble.
  • Respect his need for peers. Create opportunities for him to meet new friends at the park or on playdates.
  • Firstborns have their parents all to themselves initially, as do last-borns once their other siblings grow up and leave home. But the middle kids always have to share parental attention. Set aside extra time for your middle child to make her feel special, recommends Dr. Brazelton: "Do it for every child, individually, but especially for that middle child."

Cassandra Reigel Whetstone, of Folsom, California, admits she was more conscientious when her daughter Clara, now 7, was in preschool. "Everyday I'd ask: 'What did your teacher read to you today?' But I slacked off when Owen (now 4), came along. I can't tell you one book he's read in class this month." Parents tend to let things slide once the last child comes along -- they aren't nervous, first-time parents anymore. As a result, lastborns usually do get away with more than their siblings do, says Leman. They shoulder less responsibility, so they tend to be more carefree, easygoing, fun-loving, affectionate, and sociable, and they like to make people laugh." Just see if your youngest assumes the role of class clown someday.

But being the youngest isn't all roses. Because lastborns view their older siblings as bigger, faster, and smarter, they may attempt to differentiate themselves by being more rebellious, says Sulloway. Leman, himself the family baby, agrees with this statement: "Lastborns have an 'I'll show them' attitude." And if older siblings baby the baby, lastborns might be spoiled and manipulative.

Famous last-borns: Rosie O'Donnell, Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz, Paula Abdul, and Lucy Liu.

Out of the mouths of lastborns: "Where are my baby pictures?" "I'm never big enough or smart enough.? "Nothing I do is important." "Another hand-me-down -- can't I have something new?"

Parenting your Last-Born Child

  • Lastborns often feel they aren't taken seriously. Let her make some family decisions -- like where to go out for dinner or which video to watch together.
  • Acknowledge his "firsts." When he learns to tie his shoes or pees in the potty, call the relatives like you did with the firstborn. And be sure to make a big deal of his artistic accomplishments, displaying his drawings on the fridge, as you did for his older siblings.
  • Give the youngest child some responsibilities, even something simple like putting napkins on the table. Lastborns can end up with few family duties because they?ve learned to duck out of work or other family members have dubbed them too "little" to be able to handle things, says Leman.

Jeanie Harris, of Auburn, California, says her daughter, Erin, has always been super creative. "When she was 4, hearing me complain about my nose always being cold, she made me a 'nose warmer' with a half walnut shell, cotton, and some string!" Because only children spend so much time alone, they're self-entertainers and often tend to be the most creative of all birth orders.

In fact, Leman calls only children "Super Firstborns." Like firstborns, they are confident, well spoken, pay enormous attention to detail, and tend to do well in school. Plus, spending so much time around grown-ups often makes onlies act like "little adults." Only children have never had to compete for their parents' attention or share toys with their siblings, so they do run the risk of developing a self-centered streak. They're also used to feeling important and may have a hard time when things don't necessarily go their way, Leman says. Because their role models are competent adults, onlies are even more susceptible to perfectionism than firstborns.

Famous only children: Natalie Portman, Maria Sharapova, Tiger Woods, Alicia Keys, Shane West, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Out of the mouths of only children: "Everyone expects me to act like a grown-up." "Can I have a baby brother?"

Parenting Your Only Child

  • Since they aren't used to sharing with other kids at home, only children especially can benefit from playgroups.
  • Onlies lean toward perfectionism, so model acceptance of your own mistakes. Remind him that you couldn't cut out a perfect circle at his age either.
  • Don't seize every opportunity to teach her a better way to do something -- if she makes the bed with a few wrinkles, don't remake it. You don't want to send the message that she is not measuring up.

"Twins don't usually follow typical birth order roles," says Nancy Segal, PhD, twins expert and author of Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins (Harvard University Press). "Most parents tend to be very fair and not emphasize order of birth, at least in Western nations."

However, when twins are born vaginally, the firstborn is usually bigger, and the second-born has a greater risk for health problems. In these cases, parents may unconsciously treat the first twin more like a firstborn. Elizabeth Lyons, author of Ready or Not ... There We Go! The REAL Experts' Guide to the Toddler Years with Twins (Finn-Phyllis Press, Inc.), sees this phenomenon with Jack and Henry, her 5-year-old twins. "Jack (28 minutes older) has always cared for Henry -- he's gotten him whatever he needed, communicated for him -- and he's continued with that role all the way through."

Out of Order

"Many things contribute to human behavior," says birth order expert Frank Sulloway, PhD. "Birth order only explains a small chunk." Here are some other factors that alter traditional birth order roles:

- Gender. Being born first doesn't necessarily guarantee firstborn status. In some cultures, a boy may be treated like a firstborn even when he has four older sisters, because he?s the firstborn male.

- Age differences. Birth order effects are strongest when siblings are two to four years apart. With large age gaps, siblings might act more like only children or firstborns. Siblings separated by fewer than two years are almost like twins. "When sibs are close in age, there's a physical equality," says Sulloway. It's hard to grab that truck from your younger brother when he's not all that little.

- Special-needs sibling. When a child is born with special needs, younger siblings may take on the firstborn role.

Leman recommends spending one-on-one time with each child. "Siblings compete when they're together," he says. Spend 15 minutes a week alone with each of your children, and you'll find out who they really are.

"Out of necessity, I made myself in charge of everyone and everything. I still take charge, but I make sure my firstborn can relax and be a kid."
-- firstborn Wendy, Jackson, New Jersey

"I was jealous sometimes of the attention my siblings had, especially my younger sister. Because of that, I try to give my kids extra special attention, one-on-one, so they don't feel jealous of each other."
-- middle-born Karen, Hunt Valley, Maryland

"It's always been important to me that my older son sit through his sister's sports events, just as she sits through his. She adores him, and having him there means a lot to her."
-- last-born Audrey, Ocean, New Jersey

"I always had friends who lived close by, but I also liked playing by myself. I teach my son that being alone doesn't have to mean you're lonely; being alone can be a peaceful, productive time."
-- only child Julie, West Hartford, Connecticut

"I make sure to praise any differences in the kids, which, 'm sure, stems from the fact that I was always trying to find my own individuality."
-- twin Sacha, Saskatchewan, Canada

Natalie Lorenzi, a mother of three, lives in Trieste, Italy.

Originally published in American Baby magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.