How much does birth order play a part of my kids’ characteristics?
MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Los Angeles, California. She added that she has three children who are very different from each other in terms of behavior, personality, motivation, and more. She wonders how much birth order plays a part in these characteristics and how much of that she can influence in order to create a positive outcome for her kids?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): There’s been a lot of writing done about the significance or lack of significance about the order in which you and your siblings arrived in your family. Experts generally feel that birth order is significant in determining personality traits.
Just in the last three years there were two studies done that looked at measurable effects of birth order and they found that both IQ and Personality were affected.
In terms of IQ, a first born child generally has between three and five IQ points higher than her younger siblings. I don’t consider this to be that important because I’ve done a lot of IQ testing over the course of my career and can tell you that a three-to-five-IQ-point difference between two people is practically irrelevant.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other specific traits that have been noticed in regards to birth order. It’s worth talking about some general characteristics that we equate with birth order.
First borns tend to be reliable, conscientious, very structured, cautious, and controlling because they often are driven to be “the best.” We can look at some examples such as the fact that 21 out of the first 23 astronauts were first born children, and eighty percent of Harvard students are first born.
Perhaps first borns are innately more driven, but I think a lot of it has to do with how parents treat each child that arrives in a family. First borns are usually handed more responsibility, expectations, and trust by their parents than their younger siblings. By the time a couple has a second or third child they are usually a lot more relaxed, and those later kids seem to be, too.
MOLLY: Parents also don’t have as much time to just focus on the one child, like they probably did with the first born.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Right. The middle kids, on the other hand, tend to be people-pleasers while also being somewhat rebellious. They thrive on relationships and they don’t like to be told what to do.
By contrast, last born children are often more free-spirited, probably because of the parents’ increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards parenting. Last borns can be fun-loving, uncomplicated and outgoing attention seekers who might also be somewhat self centered and manipulative.
When it comes to birth order, only children are considered first borns forever. In fact, they’re called super first borns. They’re often mature, conscientious, and diligent perfectionist. Only children are drawn toward leadership. Incidentally, if there is a gap of five years or more between children, the second child is treated as a first born.
MOLLY: What happens to birth order in a blended family where each spouse brings in children from a previous marriage?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Birth order traits in a blended family gets a little more complicated.
MOLLY: What do you mean?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Well, if a child is the first born in a nuclear family and then becomes a younger sibling in a blended family when older step-siblings enter the picture, that’s usually a big adjustment for that child. He still feels like a first born but he may no longer be treated as such by the parental figures. It is something blended families should be aware of addressing.
One thing birth order does not seem to affect is someone’s learning style. For parents, this means that birth order is insignificant in terms of what kind of education is best for a child. Parents have to look at each individual child and get some sort of understanding about how he or she learns.
While birth order can produce enduring characteristics, parents can still influence the development of their children the way parents have raised their children for aeons: by nurturing characteristics in their children and steering their personal growth through experiences and opportunities to learn.