How Your Parenting Style Is Influenced by Your Birth Order
When it comes to understanding your personality, you can deep-dive into a variety of schools of thought from astrology to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. But you might also consider taking a look where you fall in your line of siblings. Whether you were born first, sandwiched in the middle, or the baby of your family, the order in which you were born influences how you see and respond to the world around you not only as a child but as you grow up, as well.
"As a practicing psychologist, I would ask adults to give me a description of themselves from age 5 to 12," says Kevin Leman, Ph.D., author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. "You’d be surprised how much information I’d glean from that description of them as a youngster. It gives you an idea of who you’re talking to as an adult."
The dynamics of birth order not only reflect in our personalities as adults but play out in our parenting styles, says Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist who also happened to be a firstborn.
Let's explore what experts have to say about how the order in which you were born could help shape your parenting style.
The guinea pigs of the family, eldest children are initially parented by inexperienced new parents who are literally anxious to try out their untested theories led by the parenting book of the year with the hopes of producing that golden child they envisioned and the reason they even embarked upon these unchartered waters in the first place, says Feliciano. "Rules are a bit more rigid, attention and validation is directed and somewhat excessive," she notes. "As a result, firstborns tend to be leaders, high achievers, people-pleasing, rule-following and conscientious, several of the qualities that tend to predict success."
The Firstborn as a Parent
They'll have high expectations. Dr. Leman says a firstborn's Type A personality and proclivity for order and a "right way" to do things will reflect in their parenting style. High expectations they felt as a firstborn will likely be projected especially onto their firstborn. "The firstborn is going to look at life and their children from behind their firstborn children's eyes," he notes. "And they're also going to over-identify with a child in the same position as them."
But they might expect quite a bit of additional children, as well. Feliciano notes, "A firstborn parent may have higher expectations for their own firstborn, as well as other children in the family, but by virtue of divided time and energy tend to relax the more children they have."
They'll recall their middle and/or youngest sibling's behavior. The firstborn parent could also take their experiences with a middle or baby sibling into consideration when parenting their middle or baby. For instance, Dr. Leman says if they recall that their middle sibling rarely felt heard, they may make very positive inroads in saying frequently to their middle child, "What do you think? What's your opinion?" On the flip side, if they felt irritated by a little brother or sister who often set them up and got them in trouble, they might struggle to tolerate the antics of the baby in their own family.
Their innate perfectionism can set up a couple of other common traits. "Firstborns may be more influenced by the perception of other parents," Feliciano says. "They also are known to be a bit more anxious than middle child and youngest child parents."
Middle Child Characteristics
The middle child is naturally inclined to strike out against whatever behaviors their older sibling has established, in an effort to set themselves apart. And yet, because they're in the middle, they often become the peacemakers of the family, negotiating their own position and feeling driven by fairness in the family, says Feliciano.
Because they don't have the responsibilities of the oldest child or the benefits of the youngest, many middles feel like they got shortchanged. "As a result, they may seek more approval and validation and also be sensitive to others who do not receive it," notes Feliciano.
The Middle Child as a Parent
They're mediators. That natural-born tendency to negotiate makes them excellent mediators, so they’re good at seeing both sides of an argument, points out Dr. Leman. "They're not going to be quick to make a judgment," he says. "They're going to be more likely to listen to and see both sides of everything, and they'll make a decision based upon what they think is best for the whole family."
Feliciano agrees, noting that middle child parents tend to strive for fairness and equity among their children.
They're "malleable." Because of their position in their family structure when growing up, they're psychologically wired to be flexible and capable of rolling with the punches, Dr. Leman says, which he points out is a pretty helpful trait for raising unpredictable little humans.
They're sensitive to inclusivity. Feeling left out or caught in the middle as kids, middle kid parents will generally try extra hard to ensure their children feel heard and included.
Babies of the family have a rep for being incredibly social, engaging, and entertaining, as they tend to have shouldered less responsibility growing up. "Known for their charm, sense of adventure, and limit-defying confidence, the youngest is literally the party of the family," says Feliciano.
They also tend to get away with behaviors older siblings could never have imagined attempting, Dr. Leman points out. Because parents tend to be exhausted by the time they have their third or fourth (or whichever number the baby fell under), they tend to be parented differently, says Feliciano. "Parents are also more lenient because those theories have been tested and proven," she adds. "They finally know that the baby can eat the playground dirt from their unwashed hands after petting the family dog and still live to tell the story. The youngest child tends to develop natural confidence, learning early how to play the system, and often is the center of attention because of it."
The Youngest as a Parent:
They're adventure seekers. Youngest child parents encourage adventure and boundary-challenging in their own kids, says Feliciano. "They may not be as tied to the theories and often tend to trust their own intuition in navigating a path that is right for their own family, without worrying about what the neighbors, or their older sister, might think," she explains.
They have to learn about structure. It might have been lacking in their own upbringing, but it'll be necessary as they raise their own children, says Dr. Leman. "As a youngest child, you thought rules were for other people, but now when you’re a parent and you’re trying to shuttle kids around, you have to learn that family rules are important—and to have organizational skills."
They might run interference a bit too much for their baby. "If you’re a youngest parent, you’ll run interference a little too much for your youngest," Dr. Leman notes. "You’re gonna take some of those excuses that he or she gives you and say you understand. You’ll have a softer approach with the youngest child. But that's not the best approach. The best approach is to be more directive and firm."
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Only Children Characteristics
Only children tend to be very similar to firstborns—almost like their cousins, Dr. Leman says. In fact, he calls them "Super Firstborns." Spending a lot of time alone and one-on-one with parents means they're able to entertain themselves and appear almost like mini-adults: confident, well-spoken, and academically successful from a young age. And like firstborns, they're susceptible to perfectionism.
However, because they've never had to compete with another child for attention or share toys, only children risk developing a self-centered streak. They might struggle when things don't turn out their way, Dr. Leman notes.
The Only Child as a Parent:
They might feel like fish out of water. Because they were never a "little mommy" or "little daddy" to a younger sibling, like a firstborn or middle child, or had to build relationships with older siblings, like a youngest, onlies can feel like parenting is charting unknown waters, Dr. Leman says. "They have not thrived on relationship their whole lives. and they’re cutting new ground, but they can do it," he notes.
They'll do well to pair up with a youngest child. They're naturally inclined to structure, and a youngest child is a happy-go-lucky social butterfly, so they balance one another out.
They'll thrive if given their alone time. Accustomed to having their own personal space and time, the ability to ask for support from a partner or other loved ones in order to prioritize self-care might be especially crucial for an only child parent.