Dr Kate Owen
The Influence of Birth Order
Updated: Feb 6, 2021
Although every family and child is unique, this article explores how the order in which we are born into our family can influence how we are socialised into certain roles.
This article is by no means prescriptive, but could be interesting to those who are willing to reflect on a deeper level about their family history, and consider the influence of birth order on personality, role in relationships, and behavioural patterns.
In the early years of their life, parents can give their firstborn child their undivided time, attention, praise, and teach them skills. And often the eldest is congratulated for being responsible, which leads to a desire to excel at everything to please those around them.
Thus it is a mixed blessing to be a first born child…love and burden of responsibility.
Growing up this can influence the eldest child to want to be a leader in search for ongoing recognition. And often the eldest becomes responsible for maintaining the welfare of the family.
As adults, eldest children are often reliable, conscientious, methodical and structured, cautious, and high achieving.
As an adult, the eldest works hard to let go of the fear of failure and must coach themselves to not rush in and fix things for others.
Famous eldest children: Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey.
In The Middle
Because middle children are surrounded by siblings they often get less undivided attention from their parents growing up, but this also means less pressure and intensity. This can lead to taking on a ‘people pleaser’ role in a family.
To find their niche, middle children might search for recognition with their peer group or excel at school. Some might even enjoy being somewhat invisible.
As adults, middle children are often even-tempered, somewhat rebellious, cherish friendships, have a large social network, work collaboratively, and can be a peacemaker or excellent negotiator.
As an adult, the middle child works hard at letting go of the fear that they are not valued in the family and finding their place in the world.
Famous middle children: Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffet, and Mark Zuckerberg.
The baby of the family often receives the most freedom from responsibility growing up and can take the role of being the one who brings laughter and joy to the family. The youngest can rely on others to take charge.
As an adult, the youngest may be carefree, fun-loving, outgoing, take risks and attention-seeking.
As an adult, the youngest works hard at controlling their worries about making decisions and taking initiative.
Famous youngest children: Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, and Billy Crystal
The Only Child
The only child in a family has the undivided positive attention of their parents, whilst also being the focus of their constant worry. The only child can have the experience of being 'the eldest' and 'the baby' at the same time.
Growing up, only children may be mature for their age, perfectionistic, conscientious, diligent, and leaders.
As adults, only children may seek approval from their superiors and struggle with direction if this is not received.
Famous only children: Tiger Woods, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ronald Reagan, and Drew Barrymore.
Twins share a special bond from birth that is often exclusive to the rest of the family. Twins often develop their own shared language and can communicate without words. Often adults group twins together as if they were one person.
The major life challenge for twins is to develop their own sense of uniqueness and identity outside of this sibling relationship. And to take care that they do not go to extremes to show the world that they are different to each other.
The literature tells us that these roles appear to be fairly universal if children are born close together. When there is a large gap between siblings they spend less time together and have fewer shared experiences, and therefore go through developmental stages at different points in the family history.
Therefore, large gaps between siblings can ‘reset’ the birth order experience.
For example, if you are the youngest of three, and your siblings are 8-10 years older, then you may connect more strongly with the experience of an only child.
If you were born into a large family of brothers and sisters, then it is likely that small “groups” were formed. And if your parents were busy running a large household you may have come to rely on your siblings for practical and emotional support.
A Word About Stepfamilies
If you grew up in a stepfamily, then you had two family structures to adapt too. In one household you might have been the eldest child, and in the other household you might have been chronologically the middle child due to the ages of your step-siblings.
Initially this can be quite a challenge, and the literature states that it takes on average 5 years for stepfamilies to “find their groove” and settle into more consistent routines, roles and patterns.
None of these sibling roles is a definite as there are so many factors to consider in each unique family. For example, cultural factors, gender, medical problems of children, life circumstances, connections with extended family, and adoption and fostering.
As Jenny Brown (author of “Growing Yourself Up”) states “The useful thing to appreciate in your growing-up efforts is that you can’t have the same expectations for each sibling that you have of yourself. Each family member’s pathway to maturity is inevitably different from your own”.
The more that you know about yourself, relationship patterns, roles, strengths and blind spots, the further down the path you are towards your true genuine self.
Questions For Reflection:
Have you stopped and considered how each of your siblings experienced the family differently growing up? If you placed yourself in each of their shoes, what would you gain insights around?
Consider your birth position and that of your partner. Are you both eldest children? Perhaps this might explain why you both want to be in charge of the family!
Consider your birth position and that of each of your children. Are you a middle child and therefore make a conscious effort to let your own middle child ‘shine bright’ in the family?
For those interested in exploring these ideas further I can recommend Jenny Brown’s book “Growing Yourself Up: How To Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships”.
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Please note that this article provides general advice and may not represent your unique circumstances.