Birth order is the chronological order of sibling births in a
Alfred Adler (1870–1937) was a pioneer in the study of birth order.
His research suggested that the position a child had by the order of birth
significantly affected the child's growth and personality. Research
in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century
shows even greater influence, contributing to
, career choice, and, to a certain degree, success in adulthood.
Being born first, last, or somewhere in the middle of itself is not of
significance. What matters is how that birth order affects how a child is
treated by parents and other siblings and how that child feels about it.
Other factors also influence the child's socialization and the
Birth spacing, gender, physical attributes, and being a twin also affect
personality formation and the interpretation of birth order and behavior.
These factors influence how parents treat children and how each child is
viewed by the other siblings.
Birth spacing changes the dynamics of strict birth order, too. If there is
a gap of five or more years between children, each child may be treated as
an only child or as a firstborn. If there is a large gap between groups of
children in a large family, each group may be treated as a separate birth
order family. For example, if child 1, 2, and 3 are three years apart and
there is a gap of six years before child 4 is born and child 5 and 6
follow in two year intervals, then child 1, 2, and 3 form a birth order
grouping of firstborn, middle, and last, and child 4, 5, and 6 form
another grouping of first, middle, and lastborn.
Gender also has a major impact on how a child is treated within the birth
order arrangement. The firstborn of either gender, no matter where in the
sibling order the child falls, will often be treated as a firstborn. For
example if a family has two daughters then has two sons, the first
daughter and the first son will be treated as firstborns. The daughter is
the true firstborn, but the first son is the first child in the household
to be treated with what the family perceives as maleness. Historically,
this held true and usually contributed to older sisters not having a claim
to inheritance because of their gender.
In addition, if there is only one daughter in a family of three boys, the
daughter will often be treated as a first born no matter where in the
birth order she is born. The simple fact that she is the only one of her
sex allows her to take on the characteristics of a firstborn and be
treated as such. This obviously also applies to one son in a household of
That sense of specialness also applies to children's physical
attributes and conditions. If a child of any birth order has a serious
medical problem or a physical or mental disability, that child rises
either to firstborn status or lastborn status because parental attention
is placed on this special child. Robust health and beauty can also skew
birth order expectations. For example, if there are two sons and the
younger is bigger and more athletic, the younger may be treated as a
firstborn because parental favor and expectations are higher for this
child. Likewise, if the younger of two daughters is extremely pretty and
her older sister is plain, the younger may either be treated as a favored
lastborn or as a high-achieving firstborn.
and other birth multiples also skew birth order predictions. Each twin or
multiple grouping has its own birth rank. The firstborn twin usually takes
on leadership roles for the twin pair. The secondborn usually is more
compliant and willing to follow. For the single birth children born after
twins or other multiples, birth order is skewed because the twins or
multiples have become special children and, in the case of multiples, are
their own birth order unit.
Birth order research focuses on five ordinal birth positions: firstborn,
secondborn, middle, last, and only children.
In general, firstborn children have been found to be responsible,
assertive, task-oriented, perfectionistic, and supporters of authority.
Because they often look after their younger siblings, they get experience
leading and mentoring others, often rising to leadership positions as
adults. Nearly half of all U.S. presidents were firstborns; only four were
lastborns. Studies have also linked firstborn children with higher
academic achievement and possibly higher intelligence scores when compared
to later-born children. This may be due to more exposure to adult language
and greater interactions with parents. Firstborns often choose professions
that require precision, such as careers in science, medicine, law,
engineering, computer science, or accounting.
Firstborns can harbor some resentment toward siblings because parental
attention has to be shared. They strive to hang onto parental affection by
conforming, either to their parents' wishes, their
teachers', or society's. If this does not bring the
attention they want, some firstborns defy authority and misbehave or
Many secondborns are also middle children. They often report feeling
inferior to older children because they do not possess their
sibling's advanced abilities. Sometimes, they are very competitive
with their firstborn sibling. Others choose to focus their energies in
areas different from those in which their older sibling is already
established. This competition with firstborns drives secondborns and
middleborns to innovation, doing or being different from their older
siblings in order to make
themselves stand out in the family dynamic. In truth, they often are more
competent at an earlier age than their older siblings because they have
had their example to follow.
Middle children can feel forgotten or overlooked because of the attention
or demands of either the firstborns or the lastborns. Some of these
children never seem to find their place in the social order, and they try
to rebel or misbehave in order to draw attention to themselves. Some of
these troubled middle children bully younger siblings or children at
Other middle children capitalize on the injustice they feel as children
and become trial lawyers or social activists because such roles allow them
to fight against other social injustices. Some middleborns become very
socially skilled because they have learned to negotiate and compromise
daily with their siblings and their parents. Some of these children are
often called the peacemakers of the household.
Middle children have also been found to succeed in team
, and both they and lastborns have been found to be more socially adjusted
if they come from large families.
Lastborns are generally considered to be the family "baby"
throughout their lives. Because of nurturing from many older family
members and the example of their siblings, lastborns from large families
tend to develop strong social and coping skills and may even be able to
reach some milestones earlier. As a group, they have been found to be the
most successful socially and to have the highest
of all the birth positions.
Youngest children may feel weak and helpless because they compare
themselves with older siblings who are able to do more things physically
and socially. They may feel that they always have more growing up to do in
order to have the privileges they see their older siblings have. Some
lastborns develop self-esteem problems if older siblings or parents take
power away from these lastborns so that they cannot make decisions or take
responsibility. Because of this powerlessness, some lastborns may be
grandiose, with big plans that never work out.
Some lastborns transfer this powerlessness into a personal asset by
becoming the boss of the family, coyly eliciting or openly demanding their
own way. Some families jump to and cater to these lastborns.
Other lastborns engage in
because of the injustices they think they experience because they are the
youngest. Some ally with firstborns against middleborns.
Only children may demonstrate characteristics of firstborns and lastborns.
Firstborns, after all, are only children until the first sibling is born.
Only children grow up relating to adults in the family but have trouble
relating to peers. However, this changes as they reach adulthood and get
along well with adults.
Only children are achievement-oriented and most likely to attain academic
success and attend college. They may also be creative. But only children
can be pampered and spoiled as lastborns and can be self-centered. They
may rely on service from others rather than their exert their own efforts.
They sometimes please others if it suits them but may also be
uncooperative. They can also be over-protected.
Some only children become hypercritical, not tolerating mistakes or
failure in themselves or others. They can also transform this
perfectionist tendency into rescuing behavior, agonizing over the problems
of others and rushing to take over and solve everything without letting
others help themselves.
Sibling rivalry is a normal part of family life. All children become
jealous of the love and attention that siblings receive from parents and
other adults. When a new baby comes into the family, older children feel
betrayed by their parents and may become angry, directing their anger
first toward the parents and later toward the intruder who is usurping
their position. Jealousy, resentment, and competition are most intense
between siblings spaced less than three years apart. Although a certain
amount of sibling rivalry is unavoidable, there are measures that parents
can take to reduce its severity and its potential effects on their
An older child should be prepared for a new addition to the family by
having the situation explained and being told in advance about who will
take care of her while her mother is in the hospital having the baby. The
child's regular routine should be disturbed as little as possible;
it is preferable for the child to stay at home and under the care of the
father or another close family member. If there is to be a new babysitter
or other caretaker unknown to the child, it is helpful for them to meet at
least once in advance. If sibling visits are allowed, the child should be
taken to visit the mother and new baby in the hospital.
Once the new baby is home, it is normal for an older child to feel hurt
and resentful at seeing the attention lavished on the newcomer by parents,
other relatives, and family friends. It is not uncommon for the emotional
turmoil of the experience to cause disturbances in eating or sleeping.
Some children regress, temporarily losing such attainments as weaning,
bowel and bladder control, or clear speech, in an attempt to regain lost
parental attention by becoming babies again themselves.
There are a number of ways to ease the unavoidable jealousy of children
whose lives have been disrupted by the arrival of a younger sibling. When
friends or relatives visit to see the new baby, parents can make the older
child feel better by cuddling him or giving him special attention,
including a small present to offset the gifts received by the baby. The
older child's self-esteem can be bolstered by involving him in the
care of the newborn in modest ways, such as helping out when the baby is
being diapered or dressed or helping push the stroller. The older child
should be made to feel proud of the achievements and responsibilities that
go along with his more advanced age—things the new baby cannot do
yet because he or she is too young. Another way to make older children
feel loved and appreciated is to set aside some quality time to spend
alone with each of them on a regular basis. It is also important for
parents to avoid overtly comparing their children to each other, and every
effort should be made to avoid favoritism.
In general, the most stressful aspect of sibling rivalry is fighting.
Physical, as opposed to verbal, fights usually peak before the age of
five. It is important for parents not to take sides but rather to help
children work out disagreements, calling for a "time out"
for feelings to cool down, if necessary. Over-insistence that siblings
share can also be harmful. Children need to retain a sense of
individuality by developing boundaries with their siblings in terms of
possessions, territory, and activities. Furthermore, it is especially
difficult for very young children to share their possessions.
Parents should take time to praise cooperation and sharing between
siblings as a means of positive reinforcement. The fact that siblings
quarrel with each other does not necessarily mean that they will be
inconsiderate, hostile, or aggressive in their dealings with others
outside the family. The security of family often makes children feel free
to express feelings and impulses they are unable to express in other
Firstborns often feel pressure to succeed or perform well, either by
parents or through their own inner drives. They often are called on to
take care of younger siblings or do chores because they are responsible.
Firstborns also feel pressure to be good examples for their siblings.
Some parents are quick to punish firstborns for not measuring up. Others
constantly correct firstborns because they think it will help these
children succeed. If firstborns cannot meet these expectations or
that they cannot, they often become depressed and sometimes resort to
to escape the
Parents need to realize that firstborns need not be perfect in order to
succeed. They are already eager to please and criticism should be limited
to broad strokes rather than focus on minor imperfections.
Responsibilities should be meted out in small batches according to their
age appropriate abilities. In addition, parents should acknowledge
firstborns as people, not the products of their efforts.
When placed in leadership or mentoring roles with their younger siblings,
some firstborns may demonstrate aggressive or domineering behavior. They
may boss their brothers or sisters around or lord it over them. These
behaviors can also transfer to the school setting, making these children
uncooperative with their peers. Parents should monitor leadership behavior
to make sure these children learn to lead with kindness while respecting
other people's feelings.
Secondborns and middle children often feel invisible. Parents need to make
a special effort to seek out their opinions in family discussions. Finding
out what special talents or interests these children have and encouraging
them through classes or events makes them feel like they matter and are as
important as firstborns or lastborns. All of the children in family then
feel special and loved as the unique individuals they are.
Youngest children are not usually very responsible because they have not
been given the opportunity. Parents can foster responsibility and
self-reliance by giving even the youngest child some responsibility, such
as setting the table or putting clean clothing in their dresser drawers.
If lastborns are being bullied by older siblings, parents need to step in.
Children need help developing strategies for working out difficulties.
They can also benefit from hearing parents tell older siblings that it
took time for them to do the things that lastborns are struggling to do.
—Children born in multiple births; e.g. twins, triplets, quads,
—Competition among brothers and sisters in a nuclear family. It
is considered to be an important influence in shaping the personalities
of children who grow up in middle-class Western societies but less
relevant in traditional African and Asian cultures.
Isaacson, Cliff, and Kris Radish.
The Birth Order Effect: How to Better Understand Yourself and Others.
Avon, MA: Adams Media Corp., 2002.
Brothers and Sisters: The Order of Birth in the Family.
Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 2002.
Krohn, Katherine E.
Everything You Need to Know about Birth Order.
New York: Rosen, 2000.
The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are.
Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2004.
Richardson, Donald W.
Birth Order and You: Are You the Oldest, Middle, and Youngest Child?
Bellingham, WA: Self-Counsel Press, 2004.
"Birth Order May Affect Career Interests."
131, i. 2687 (August 2002): 11.
Renkl, Margaret. "Oldest, Youngest, or in Between: How Your
Child's Birth Order Can Affect Her Personality—and What You
Can Do to Influence Its Impact."
16, i. 5 (June 1, 2002): 82+.