I’m the youngest member of a family of three boys. Growing up, I always felt I benefited from seeing what kinds of trouble my older brothers got themselves into, so I could avoid it. This is no doubt why I was a perfect child. (Don’t believe me? Ask my parents and brothers…um, on second thought, maybe not.)
I never really thought about the influence of birth order on how I turned out as an adult, but maybe I should have.
The influence of birth order has been under consideration ever since the days of psychologist Alfred Adler, who was a contemporary of Freud. Adler felt that individuals strive for “superiority”–self-realization, completeness, or perfection. Feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, or incompleteness arising from physical defects, low social status, pampering or neglect during childhood, or other causes can frustrate this quest, leading individuals to compensate for feelings of inferiority by developing their skills and abilities or even to overcompensate by striving for power and influence at other people’s expense.
Adler felt birth order could help determine whether an individual feels superior or inferior. He said an only child, who gets lots of attention from both parents, may become over-protected and spoiled. The second child is often very competitive, wanting to overtake the first child. A middle child may feel he or she lacks significance, and can react by being very even-tempered or becoming a fighter against injustice. The youngest child always wants to be bigger than the others, and may come up with huge plans that seldom work out. He or she may also be spoiled.
Adler died in the 1930s. The idea that birth order determines destiny fell into the realm of pop psychology, and was pretty much scorned by serious scientists. Recent research, however, supports his view of the importance of birth order.
A recent study by a group of scientists from several major northeastern U.S. universities, published in the Journal of Career Assessment, found that only children and first-born children tend to have more cognitive and analytical interests, while later-born children tend to be more artistic and outdoor-oriented. Frederick T. L. Leong, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, theorizes that parents who have only one child may tend to discourage physical or outdoor activities because they’re worried about something happening to their only offspring. As well, he thinks, only or first-born children may be encouraged to pursue a prestigious career like lawyer or doctor.
As parents have more children, they tend to become more open and relaxed, and that may allow younger children to take more risks–such as pursuing a career in the arts. Or, as Leong puts it, “If the first-born or only child wants to be a poet, that may concern parents. But by the fourth child, parents may not mind as much.”
Other research has shown that first-borns tend to be more highly motivated to achieve than later children; of the first 23 people who traveled into outer space, for instance, 21 were first-borns or only children. In fact, any tally of prominent people–presidents of the U.S., for instance–will show a high percentage of first borns.
Research has also shown that birth order can also affect self-esteem. Possibly all the attention first-born children receive before their siblings arrive on the scene boosts their self-esteem; another possibility is that children naturally compare themselves to other children, and the first-born in a family naturally finds him or herself to be the oldest, biggest, most grown-up child, who achieves all kinds of milestones before anyone else does.
One college study found that 25 percent of firstborns reported having nightmares, while 85 percent of lastborns did. Other studies have found that lastborns are slower at accepting responsible roles–taking on jobs, for instance–probably because they’ve never experienced being older and more capable than someone else in their family.
So is birth order destiny? Hardly. Every child is an individual and every family situation is unique. There are many other factors at work on personality, and there are plenty of insecure artistic firstborns and confident scientifically-minded lastborns.
Look at me, for instance. I’m a lastborn, and I’m both confident and scientifically minded.
Sure, I didn’t get a drivers’ license until I was almost 20 and I lived at home with my parents for the first two years of my working career and eventually I quit my full-time job to become a freelance writer and actor, but…but…