Birth Order and Personality: Does it apply to you?

Image credit: Pixabay
Has anyone, a friend or acquaintance perhaps, ever told you that "you are a typical first-born, middle-child, last-born, or only child"? May have just been a keen observation or an insult but, nevertheless, specifies to birth order and how it correlates to your personality. People have always been captivated by the notion of the birth order theory and how it applies to a person's personality. The theory has been around for quite some time but, until now, studies and research to prove or disprove this theory are still being conducted, showing that psychologists are searching for specific answers to predict certain personality traits based on whichever ordinal position you occupy within your family or if the theory is mute.

The theory of birth order and the classic stereotypes: firstborn as a natural leader, the spoiled, lazier youngest child, and the often-ignored middle child, were first presented by the psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, a known disciple of Sigmund Freud, in the early 20th century. He proposed that this theory answered and explained why siblings that follow a specific biological order within the family are different from one another. Of course, the application of this theory has been the topic of searing debates for over the years but, obviously is very hard to contest. As for us, when it does become a topic of conversation, whether it may be an insult or just a simple statement, it seems to intrigue us even more. Does the birth order really apply?

In the Philippine family setting, siblings are bestowed titles in accordance with their birth order: Kuya (M)/Ate (F)- for the eldest child; Diko (M)/Ditse (F)- for the second eldest child; Sangko (M)/Sanse (F)- for 3rd eldest; Siko (M)/Sites (F)- for 4th eldest and of course, Bunso- for the youngest. Unfortunately, only Kuya and Ate are still being used today for all older siblings if you are the bunso (youngest). These titles show a hierarchy in the position of siblings within the family and points to the relevance of birth order most especially with regards to responsibility as the eldest will always be held responsible for his/her younger siblings. Kinship and pecking order is of great importance here in the Philippines.

Birth Order in the Traditional Family Setting

According to psychologists, the impact of birth order has to do with how the parents relate to the child or children and that it usually is relative to the ordinal position that the child occupies. In short, Birth Order + Parenting =Behavior. New parents' attentiveness and cautiousness with a first-born may cause the child to be a striving perfectionist while for second or middle children, they may become people-pleasers since they know they can not receive the same level of attentiveness at home. The youngest, on the other hand, tend to become more free-spirited because they are more coddled than the rest of the siblings.

According to Kevin Leman, Ph.D. and author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are, there are basic birth order personality types that follow the traditional birth order structure:
3 sisters: Firstborn, middle-child, and the last-born.
Image credit: Pixabay
The Firstborn or the Achiever (I am number 1.)
- Leader
- Responsible
- Highly motivated to succeed
- Strong need for approval from people in charge.
The firstborn is a high achiever- dominating perfectionist who needs approval. Unfortunately, this may also mean that they struggle to admit when they are wrong. The firstborn, doesn't like surprises, aren't usually spontaneous, are aggressive and confident but, are people-pleasers as well. Leman adds "the one thing you can bet your paycheck on is the firstborn and second born in any given family are going to be different.

The Only Child or the Super Firstborn (I am the only one.)
-Similar to the firstborn but more so
- Comfortable with adults
- Not so good with criticism
Only children are " firstborns in triplicate", says Leman. While firstborns monopolize his/her parents ' attention and resources for a short period of time, for the only child without siblings to vie for attention, it's FOREVER. This comes with a huge burden for the only child for they frequently shoulder the high expectations given to them by their parents. As such, the only child is more responsible and an even bigger perfectionist than the traditional first born.
Moreover, they are more likely to use their imagination than other children, are more mature than their age, and get along better with older people.

The Middle-child/the Peacemakers (Mind me...)
-Prefer compromise over conflict
-Independent and resourceful
- Secretive
Middle children are social people pleasers who are somewhat rebellious. Often feels left out in the family and usually asks the question: I'm not the eldest nor the youngest, so who am I?
The Middle-child usually develops skills and interests that are different from family members and since they feel they are not often prioritized in the family setting, focus on their friendships or peer groups.  In spite of the perception of the middle child of receiving the least amount of attention in the family which may make them insecure and secretive, they become independent, resourceful, and inventive. Being the middle child also makes them able to see all sides of the family, making them great mediators in family conflicts.

The Last Born/ Baby of the Family (I'm the baby.)
-Financially Irresponsible
-Spoiled/babied to the point of helplessness
As the youngest child in the family, the last-born's influence resonates and extends throughout the family which supports the baby of the family both emotionally and physically. For this reason, the last-born experiences a sense of security while his older siblings might not. They benefit the most, as parents are more comfortable and experienced with their parenting and parents usually have the support of the older children in the family to help tend to the needs of the youngest.
The youngest are usually characterized as more free-spirited and this is attributed to the laissez-faire attitude of the parents plus, the responsibility already given to the older siblings. Youngest children tend to share the least amount of responsibility in the household, and this may cause them to be more easy going and carefree but, also gives them a rebellious streak with an "I'll show them" attitude as older siblings are viewed as more responsible, stronger, smarter, and wiser.

As you can see, it is easy to surmise that in the traditional family setting, the family environment is one of the most important factors in the development of a person's personality and behavior. Parenting strategies, time, effort and resources that are given to the child have a strong impact on personality.

Exceptions to Traditional Birth Order Structure

Blended families
If you have watched the movie of Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore entitled Blended, you know that blended families don't blend, they collide. The firstborn of one, who used to be the leader of the pact could be ousted by an older stepsibling, the youngest by the coming of a new baby.

Families within families
In cases of the birth of multiples such as twins, the twins are seen as a unit that operates outside the traditional birth order and thus perceived as another family creating the family within the family structure. A twin will never act like a middle child;  twins will either act like a firstborn or the last-born. As a unit operating outside the traditional aspects of the birth order, they are placed in a special position amongst their siblings.
Image credit: Pixabay

For adoption, the key factor is the age of the child at the time of the adoption. If the child is a baby when adopted, the adopted child is most likely to fall into the traditional birth order structure. For older children, he will take the birth order with him and usually means he's firstborn.

Gap between children
According to Kevin Leman, if you have a gap of at least 5 years between children, another family begins in the birth order structure. For example, a 3-year-old boy with a newborn brother and an 8-year-old sister will not adopt the classic birth order as a middle child rather, he will become the firstborn in relation to his baby brother.
According to some psychologists, negative personality traits are associated with larger age gaps between children. They appear to be related to more disorganized behavior, more neuroticism, and more introversion. Small birth gaps make it easier for parents to provide adequate attention and resources simultaneously and because of the small age gap, siblings tend to be closer to each other.

Additional Factors that Contribute to shaping Personality
Researchers note that sibling rivalry and parents' adaptation to it play a role in shaping a child's personality. Adverse childhood circumstances matter too, like a death of a sibling, of a parent, or child abuse.

Actual Birth Order vs Psychological Birth Order

The University of Georgia Psychologist Alan P. Stewart is one psychologist who was interested in making sense of all this and his most critical breakthrough was distinguishing between "actual" birth order (ABO) from psychological birth order (PBO)/self-perceived birth order. He cited that your actual birth order need not have the same impact on you as the birth order you believe you have. Both can deviate for a number of reasons: family size, degree separation between siblings and illness of one sibling. Your role in the family based on your age and birth order may not be the same as the role (birth order) you have come to occupy. (Psychology Today 2012)
In other words, for example in a big family with a considerable age gap between siblings, the eldest may leave home while the 2nd eldest is still a minor. The 2nd eldest thus assumes the role of firstborn for his siblings due to an absentee firstborn.

This correlation between actual birth order and psychological birth order was later realized in a test called The White-Campbell Psychological Birth Order Inventory. This test measures if people are a psychological match to their actual birth order and surprisingly, only 23% of female test subjects and 15% of male test subjects identify with their actual birth order.

With this surprising development, this casts doubt on the original approach to the birth order theory. This has led to other research that is bent on disproving the birth order theory. One of them led by Professor Brent Roberts demonstrated that differences between siblings were infinitesimally small. In real life applications, the difference in personality and intelligence are so minor (+/-1) that they are insignificant, Brent adds.

He also stresses that the oldest child will always be older. People tend to say that their older child is more responsible than the younger ones, or is more diligent, or more helpful- it's because of one small fact, THAT THEY ARE OLDER.

When a group of parents of twins were asked if they were going to tell their twins who is older, surprisingly most said no. According to them, this will help their twins become separate individuals and not fall into the traditional birth order roles. They stressed that twins are more intense, one always competing with the other to dominate- they do not want to add fuel to the fire.

Here's a fun fact for twins: it is the custom in Nigeria that the oldest twin pushes the youngest out of the womb first. Thus the oldest twin isn't the oldest but the youngest.

Birth order and how it applies to our personality is very captivating and intriguing and maybe you have already ticked off some traits that I have enumerated based on your birth order. Don't fall for the Forer effect- this is the psychological phenomenon in which individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that they perceive is tailored specifically for them but, apply to a wide range of people. I guess you have fallen for this when you read your horoscope. I know, there's a somewhat fulfilling feeling when one is able to diagnose a personality since personalities are complicated puzzles and everyone wants to solve a puzzle.
Image credit: Pixabay
As for parents like myself, we should not let birth order influence our parenting. Take it from the cartoon "The Loud House"... The parents are able to spend individual time with all the siblings most especially to the ones who need them the most.

I have one child and I don't plan to have any more children because of health reasons. My child is a toddler and is already looking for friends his age trying to get out the house as much as possible. If the birth order theory holds true, then I know what to expect. But, I don't need to expect- I just want him to grow up a good person. That's all I ask.

After reading this, does the birth order theory apply to you?

*Credit to Sources:
Nahman, Haley "Does Your Birth Order Affect Your Personality?',
IZA Press "How Personality is  Affected by Birth Order and Birth Spacing",
Kauffman, Gretel "A New Study is Upending Long-held Theories about the Relationship of Birth Order and Personality", Christian Science Monitor,
Voo, Jocelyn "How Birth Order Affects Your Child's Personality and Behavior", Parents Magazine,
Diaz, Chinnie "Birth Order and Personality: Are you True to Type?"

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  1. Interesting article...i dont think i'm a typical middle child but i've heard other people say that i am. I guess there are maybe traits that i exhibit but, i feel aren't my strongest points. Oh well, good luck on trying to make sense of it all. People are all different.

  2. Hard to say...but i can be considered a middle child in a unique way. Hehehe.


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