How birth order affects your life

Some researchers say birth order can influence your personality. Here’s how your place in the family can affect your life

How birth order affects your life

Source: Best Health Magazine, Summer 2011

Let’s say you’re planning a party. If you have every detail perfectly worked out a week ahead of time, right down to the colour-coordinated cocktail napkins, you’re probably the eldest child in your family. If you casually throw things together and invite a few extra guests at the last minute, it would be a safe bet that you’re a middle child. If you’d rather someone else did the work and you just showed up and entertained everyone, you’re likely the baby.

Birth order, and its influence on how you live your life, has been a topic of fascination for more than a century among researchers, psychologists, therapists and anyone who is intrigued by family dynamics. ‘People use birth order as a way of making powerful sense out of their lives,’ says Frank Sulloway, visiting scholar and member of the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley. (Now, for all you first-born skeptics who are thinking that California spawns a host of wacko theories, please note that Sulloway is one of the world’s foremost birth order researchers, with a PhD from Harvard in the history of science.) He says siblings share only about half the same genes, which leaves a combination of non-identical genes and environmental influences to account for their personality differences. ‘And birth order is still among the largest differences we are able to document,’ he says. In fact, birth order differences play nearly as strong a role as gender differences.

We assume siblings are born into the exact same family, but in truth they’re not. First-borns come into an environment of adults, typically receiving lots of attention from inexperienced parents who are enthralled by every milestone and terrified by every mishap. By contrast, middle-borns never experience having parents to themselves, and are overshadowed by their older and more competent siblings’who are running, climbing and talking before them’while expected to set an example for the younger ones. Then the baby of the family arrives in a busy kid-centred household with seasoned, often more relaxed parents. They aren’t focused on every milestone by this point, and so this child soon learns to trade charm for attention. As a result, first-borns are conditioned to achieve, middles to accommodate, babies to delight.

While Ottawa therapist and educator Marion Balla cautions that birth order doesn’t directly cause certain personality traits, she does say, ‘I believe birth order is one of the strong factors in personality development.’ Balla is president of the Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group, named for Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychotherapist who was the first, back in the early 1900s, to link birth order to personality development. Balla says, ‘For 40 years I’ve been using birth order as a way to help people understand the way they view themselves and how it can influence their relationships.

So, what does it mean?

The high-achieving first-born

Birth order research from around the world suggests that first-borns often have more in common with one another than with their own siblings. Eldest children quickly learn how to please parents, becoming conscientious, organized, reliable, and little mini-parents to their younger siblings. They’re high achievers and choose solid, established professions such as law, medicine, education or accounting, rising to leadership positions. Check out the birth orders of the leaders of the five major parties in Canada’s recent federal election: Stephen Harper is the eldest of three; Michael Ignatieff and Elizabeth May the elder of two; and Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe the eldest of four. First-borns, all.

This doesn’t surprise Tucson, Ariz., psychologist Kevin Leman, author of a series of books on birth order including The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. ‘First-borns will always rule,’ says Leman, who has often appeared on Oprah, The View and many other TV talk shows. Various studies have shown that first-borns are two to three times more likely than last-borns to become CEOs.

Stacey Sutherland, 43, of Aurora, Ont., acknowledges that she’s a typical first-born. ‘I’m not one to run out and buy a birthday gift at the last minute,’ says the eldest of four. ‘It’s done five days early.’ She excelled in school, majoring in the detail-oriented field of administrative and commercial studies, and obeyed her parents’ strict rules around curfews and dating’rules she says were non-existent for her youngest sibling. Although she has three school-age children, Sutherland’s house is always tidy. ‘I’m organized, I love order, I can’t operate in chaos, and I love to make lists and check things off. But my younger sister is definitely not like that. She pulls everything together at the last minute.’

First-borns, believing there’s one correct way to do things, can be critical of other ways. Leman says that later-borns, which include middle and younger children, tend to notice this at family get-togethers. ‘At the family Thanksgiving dinner at your house, even though you may have a master’s degree and you’ve raised four kids, your older sister who always told you how to do everything is now telling you how to cook the turkey.’

The unconventional later-born

While first-borns want to do things right, later-borns want to do things differently. The second child carefully watches what position the eldest has claimed, then carves out a distinct niche. If the first-born shines in math, tennis and violin, the second may pursue art, guitar and skateboarding. In the world of Nobel Prize laureates, first-borns are over-represented in science, later-borns in literature. While first-borns are eminently accomplished and capable, the more unconventional later-borns are historically the ones responsible for grand revolutionary advances that drive societal change. It’s later-borns who fought for equality, freedom of speech, freedom of worship and abolition of slavery, says Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives. Mother Teresa, Darwin and Gandhi were all later-borns.

The arrival of a third child automatically creates a middle one, and middle children can be difficult to categorize’which is fine by them, since in forging their identity they actively avoid being boxed in. Middles’whether the second of three, the second and third of four, or the middle five of seven’usually are in the fewest photos in the family album. Receiving less one-on-one time from parents, middles form attachments with their peers, often developing extensive networks of friends. While they may deeply love their family, they’re the most likely to move far away from home, the least likely to care about family genealogy, and the best prepared for life’s vicissitudes. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Madonna, Jean Chrétien and Avril Lavigne are all middle children.

The attention-seeking baby

The baby of the family tends to receive the least discipline, the fewest responsibilities and the biggest audience. While last-borns are rarely consulted for their opinions or listened to for their views, they soon learn that being funny and adorable goes a long way toward gaining attention and approval. It’s no wonder that many comedians are last-borns. Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey, Martin Short, Robin Williams, Steve Carell, Billy Crystal and Cathy Jones are all the babies of their families. Super-zany satirist Stephen Colbert is a super-baby’the youngest of 11.

Onlies and twins

Only children, who have no siblings to play off, can’t be easily pigeonholed. Many, like first-borns, are high achievers, but those who can’t or won’t excel may rebel and follow their own path. There’s some evidence that onlies are more trusting than first-borns but more goal-oriented than later-borns. (Famous onlies: Lucy Maud Montgomery, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, John Lennon and Elvis.)

As for twins, ‘all bets are off,’ says Sulloway. Sometimes the first-born twin, even if older by only two minutes, takes on first-born traits, but much depends on how they’re treated. Environmentalist David Suzuki is a twin who was born moments before his sister, but Japanese tradition holds that the second-born twin is considered the elder, having graciously moved aside to allow the younger sibling to enter the world first. Interestingly, Suzuki, as an accomplished scientist and attention-loving broadcaster, exhibits traits of all birth orders.

The effect of age gap on birth order

There’s a slew of variables that can skew birth order effects, say the experts. One is gender. If a boy is born after one or more girls (or a girl after one or more boys), that child could be raised as a ‘functional first-born”the first son or daughter in the family. If the spacing between siblings is five years or more, the effects of birth order fade. If some children are closer in age than others’for instance, if six siblings are ages 14, 12, 11, five, three and two’it can create separate clusters, with two first-borns, two middles and two babies. Divorce, disability or death of any family member can interfere with the expected effects. Blended families can alter the birth order of very young children, but the older the kids are, the more ingrained their pecking order in the family and the more resistant to change.

Today’s smaller families of one or two children mean a surfeit of first-borns and onlies, and a deficit of middles. A boy and girl’a true first-born and a functional first-born’may exhibit similar characteristics. If both children are the same gender but several years apart, the younger one could display the same first-born traits as the elder. ‘By having smaller families, we’re running the risk of having more perfectionistic, driven children,’ Leman says. We also run the risk of losing birth order theory altogether, as all the experts consulted for this story are later-borns. But every one of them emphasizes that birth order is only an influence, not a destiny.

One final note: Leman says that no matter what your birth order, you probably think your siblings got a better deal. If you’re a baby, you think your eldest sibling got the first and best of everything; if you’re a first-born, you’re envious that the middle one had the freedom to choose an independent path; and everyone gripes that the baby always got away with murder.

Find out what your birth order personality says about you!

This article was originally titled "Does birth order matter?" in the Summer 2011 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!