How Does Birth Order Affect Personality In Teens?
Sam Osborne, a typical firstborn, is an overachiever who can pack a week into a day. Sam is outraged that Leah, his 13-year-old youngest sister, is seeing an R-rated movie because he wasn’t allowed to see R-rated until he was 17. Leah smiles, knowing that the house rules don’t apply to her. On the other hand, Charlotte, the middle child, who is desperately trying to carve out her place in the family, isn’t smiling. The R-rated movie is just one more injustice. Charlotte, though easy-going and amiable, thinks life is unfair. Peg Osborne, the mother of this New Fairfield, Connecticut family, scratches her head and wonders how her three children would be different if their birth order were inverted.
Scientific research on the social phenomenon of birth order naturally leads to generalizations. Your own experience may completely align with the findings, or you may totally disagree with the general data. Even experts disagree on the importance of birth order research. Nevertheless, the information is worth some thought.
Birth Order Stereotypes
Birth order appears to significantly impact children’s personalities. In fact, researchers and parents generally agree on the following stereotypes:
- Oldest children: high achievers, natural leaders, adult-pleasers, rule-followers and know-it-alls who can be organized, punctual, bossy and responsible.
- Middle children: peacemakers and perfectionists who can be flexible, easy-going, social, independent, secretive, indecisive, adaptable and perceive that life is unfair.
- Youngest children: risk-takers who can be competitive, self-centered, creative, outgoing, funny, spoiled, easily bored and adventurous.
- Only children: Leaders who can be mature, demanding, dependable, private, sensitive, self-centered, spoiled, close to parents and well-educated.
Certain factors seem to modify these stereotypes, including the number of children in the family and their age gaps, their gender, their temperament, family illnesses, life changes, such as divorce, blended families, death, financial gains or losses and parents’ own birth orders.
For example, if the oldest child is a girl and the second child is a boy, both children may assume the traits of a firstborn child. Cheryl, from Ohio, has this situation with her two oldest teenagers.
“My oldest daughter and my second-born son are both pleasers and conscientious. Both are like typical oldest children,” Cheryl says.
Blended families may also cause behaviors to adapt and change. Regina Lloyd, from Dallas, Texas, experienced this after her divorce and remarriage.
“My 14-year-old son took on a lot of responsibility after our divorce,” Regina says. “He was a huge help with his younger brother. Last year, I married a man with three children, 17, 15, and 10, and we all live together part-time. Now that he is no longer the oldest, I have noticed that he sits back and lets the others take control. He’s no longer acting like the oldest child.”
Oldest Children: The Highest Expectations
Many parents have higher expectations for their oldest child. In some situations, the parents become excessively critical of their firstborn. Family psychologist, Dr. Kevin Leman, and author of Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are, calls this the “critical-eyed” parent. He believes that a parent who relentlessly criticizes the eldest child can dramatically alter the child’s path to becoming a reliable, conscientious leader. Typically, when this occurs, the oldest child no longer fits the firstborn paradigm, and the second child may occupy the space.
More commonly, high expectations can be detrimental without rising to the “critical-eye” extreme. Rachel, from California, and mother of three teenagers, has always expected more from her oldest daughter.
“My 17-year-old has always hated competitive tennis. But I refused to let her quit because I had great dreams for her and success at tennis was essential toward that goal. I realize now that if she’s miserable and not leading her own way, it’s bad all around,” Rachel says.
A 2008 study from researchers at Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland confirms this theory. The study, “Games Parents and Adolescents Play,” finds evidence that more severe discipline of older children deters younger siblings from engaging in activities for which older siblings were penalized. This same study also concludes that the possibility of such punishment deters oldest children from rebelling.
Middle Children: The Hardest to Describe
The words to describe middle children contain several contradictions: loner, shy and quiet versus sociable, friendly and outgoing; impatient versus laid back; competitive versus easygoing; rebel versus peacemaker; aggressive and scrappy versus avoids conflict. Not only are middle children the hardest to stereotype or describe, raising middle children is often the most challenging for the parent and the teen.
Generally, the middle child is the opposite personality of the firstborn and different from the other siblings.
“In my house, the middle child can always be counted on to say, ‘It’s not fair.’ She looks to either side of her, the oldest and the youngest, to determine her own needs,” Peggy Osborne says.
Youngest Children: The Least Disciplined
Linda Dunlap, a birth-order expert at Marist College, believes that discipline relaxes with each child. By the time the youngest becomes a teenager, parents are more laid back and too worn out to be disciplinarians. This supports the commonly heard complaint from the oldest. They believe they would never have gotten away with the behaviors of their younger brothers and sisters. Peter Dawson, a father of three teenagers from Westchester, New York, admits that discipline is loose with his youngest.
“Our youngest is a teenager now, and we’re tired,” he says. “The priorities of bedtime and movie ratings just aren’t that important anymore. And when our youngest child behaves poorly or speaks disrespectfully, we tend to ignore it. So yes, I think our youngest is more laid back and happier than his older siblings because we are too.”
A Darwinian Perspective
Frank Sulloway, a science historian at the Institute of Personality and Social Research, describes a Darwinian perspective in his book on birth order, Born to Rebel. Sulloway believes that the personalities of siblings vary because they adopt different strategies to gain approval from their parents. In their shared environment and competitive quest for approval, children acquire “niches” that provide each with his or her own outlook. In a “survival of the fittest” modality, each child strives to meet the approval of their parents in his or her own unique way.
Through his research of historical figures, Sulloway finds conclusive evidence that this powerful family dynamic is the basis for great revolutionary advances that have driven historical change. His findings state that the oldest child identifies with parents and authority and support for the status quo, whereas younger children rebel against it. Historical leaders embody this theory. Firstborn are well represented among the highly esteemed (Bill Clinton, Winston Churchill and Newt Gingrich). Later-born are well represented among those who brought about historical change (Carl Marx, Lenin, Arafat, Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Bill Gates, HoCheMin and Darwin himself).
Parents and teens can use this perspective to enhance self-awareness and facilitate growth. Oldest children are typically more conservative, conscientious and conforming. They strive for open-mindedness when presented with an innovative idea or opportunity.
On the other hand, younger siblings, who might reject the status quo in favor of new ideas, can learn to react with more caution when new ideas and opportunities are presented to them.
Birth Order: Theirs and Ours
The birth order position of each parent also plays a role in parenting.
“It’s inevitable that your own position will color your perspective,” says Dr. Rosalyn Chrenka, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, Illinois.
Parents tend to over-identify with the child in the same birth order position. A parent who was a youngest child may sympathize more with their youngest child being bossed around by their older child. On the other hand, two firstborn parents with firstborn characteristics may overwhelm their firstborn with high expectations. Ultimately, awareness of this influence may impact parenting decisions.
Birth Order: Interests and Careers
Studies show that birth order affects career choices. Firstborn and only children are more likely to pursue occupations that use their intellectual and cognitive skills. Younger siblings tend to pursue artistic and outdoor-related careers. Parents can affect these choices. For example, the parents who pressure their oldest children to pursue a prestigious career may later be the same parents who let the younger children follow a dream or passion.
This certainly could affect their interests and their career choice. Leman says that if the firstborn is a company’s CEO, then the middle child is the entrepreneur. He points out that 21 of the 23 first astronauts were firstborn. Firstborns have a strong representation among presidents and Rhode Scholars.
Should We Worry?
Carolyn Ievers-Landis, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Case Medical Center at University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio, states that birth order is not something to worry about. But it is a tool through which parents can begin to understand their teenagers’ behaviors and reactions to their parents and siblings. She feels that parents can lessen the influence of birth order, especially as their teenagers grow older, by not comparing one child to another.
Leman offers the following perspectives for parents:
- Birth order is only an influence, not a final act of life forever set in cement.
- The way parents treat their children is equally important to their birth order, environment or physical and mental characteristics.
- Every child has inherent strengths and weaknesses that parents must accept while helping to develop the positive traits and cope with the negative.
- No position in birth order is better than the other.
- Birth order does not give the total psychological picture for anyone.
Parenting Your Teen in any Order
When asked to describe their teenage children, how often do parents reply, “Oh, she’s such a middle child,” or “He’s a typical firstborn!” Parents need to understand their teens’ personalities and tendencies, stereotypical or not. If a teen puts too much pressure on himself, whether he is firstborn or not, parents need to know not to add to the stress. Parents should offer extra encouragement, attention and direction to their teen who feels insecure when compared to her other siblings. Regardless of whether that teen is the middle child or youngest child. The bottom line: birth order is just one of the many factors that contribute to teens’ unique position in a family