Birth order is a hotly contested topic. Research shows birth order does not effect personality, but that is because research uses ordinal data. Yes, if you were born in 1979 and your sister was born in 1982, you are the oldest by age. However, I am talking about the psychological phenomena of how each child finds their own unique position in their family constellation, and how this is shaped by our experiences.
Common experience seems to shape us in some common ways -- and that includes our parenting styles.
FIRST BORN PERSONALITY
If you are the first child born into a family, it’s a pretty safe bet that your parents are newbies so they’ll be nervous, zealous, vigilant and likely over protective. They have no other children vying for their attention, so they can give their first child a LOT of it. And I mean A LOT. (God help you if you’re the first grandchild, too.)
The feedback loop between when their baby first smiles and when they cheer and smile back, giving positive social reinforcement is very immediate. This system of “I do something and you notice and glow” makes a first born very motivated to do things right and well and get recognition.
They can be perfectionists and like rules they can apply to assure they get things right. They tend to trust authority and like order.
The eldest soars so long as they are doing well. But hell hath no fury as a discouraged first born. They can easily turn away from life and its challenges, become deeply discouraged, shut down and stop trying.
So if that sounds like you, how will that impact your parenting?
FIRST BORN PARENTING
As a collective, one might guess that you are more likely to want to have a clean house with order instead of chaos. You’re likely good at establishing and enforcing routines. That’s good parenting because children thrive with routine because expectations are clear and life is predictable.
On the flip side, the very nature of children goes against your strengths. Babies, most especially. They have their own rhythm. You want to go to bed at nine, but you have a colicky baby with a different idea. You are running out the door and like to be punctual, just as they soil their diaper right up their back to their ears. You have a toddler who wants to finger paint and jump in mud, but you’re not sure you want the mess.
MIDDLE CHILD PERSONALITY
Middle children can struggle to find their place in the family because they don’t get the privileges of being the eldest, nor do they get the care taking and spoiling of the baby. They are lost in no-person’s land with a chip on their shoulder about how unfair life is. They feel they always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop and often turn to outside the family for recognition and attention.
They are great mediators, which they often use when dealing with their elder and younger sibs. They always have some sibling they can play with. Feeling squeezed out of the family can make them scrappy and the fighter in the family. Middle children are the mostly likely to be discouraged and act out.
So how will it impact your parenting?
MIDDLE CHILD PARENTING
You will have a keen eye on fairness issues. If a child wants to get his way with you, all they have to complain is “that is unfair” and you will crumble, feeling that is the ONE transgression you have pledged you will never make as a parent. The unfortunate downside to this is that you are now going to be acting as the family bean counter.
When you find yourself dumping out sleeves of French fries onto the tray and counting them out to be assured each child gets the same amount, you’re doomed. You can never get to “fair”. An obsession with fairness actual spurs competition between children instead of quelling it.
Middle children who become parents tend to be very inclusive and social. They were social bunnies as children and will likely want to repeat that joy of having lots of people around to play with. They will empathize with their middle child about feeling squeezed out of the pack and may give him or her special attention to make up for feeling “invisible” as a child. No matter what, they will always stick up for the child who is the underdog.
Ah, the baby. By now your parents are broken in and frankly, maybe even be a bit tired of parenting. If the eldest dropped their pacifier it was likely sterilized. If baby spits her pacifier on the floor, parents wipe it off on their sleeve and pop it back in the baby’s mouth.
Parents depend on some helping hands from older siblings too. The baby has many teachers and that means they can watch and learn from all the mistakes their siblings make. If parents know this is the last child they’re having, they may cling to the joys of parenting such as nursing longer or co-sleeping longer. The baby gets babied a lot and they learn to emphasize their neediness and helplessness in order to keep parents’ attention on them.
A baby might also be driven to keep up with their older siblings and not be left behind. If this is the case, instead of feigning helpless, they may opt to become more like the little engine that could. They can be bold and courageous, trying feats like riding a two-wheeler well before the usual age just to prove they can to their older sibs.
They tend to be confident, as they have never been dethroned by the addition of a new sibling so their place in the family never altered. They have a built-in support net of older siblings. They feel like someone always has their back or will catch them if they fall. Because of this, they are more likely to take risks and are generally more easygoing and playful.
How does that impact your parenting?
You may be a very playful parent who enjoys being taken back to the silliness of childhood, crawling into forts made of pillows and blankets with your kids, and being the oldest kid in the splash pad at the park. You may find that rules and routines seem a tad too stifling, so there may be more chaos in your house. You may find it hard to see why your eldest child is so particular and doesn’t want to be spontaneous.
Staying organized and on top of things like immunization shots, school paper work, or even laundry and dishes may make you feel like you’re always behind or late.
Chances are you’ll spend money on your kids and fun vacations, or an over-sized trampoline thinking “live now – we’ll figure out the finances later!”
If you’re a little engine type, your ambition and drive could make you an over achiever and/or hyper responsible. Your children may feel an unspoken pressure to live up to the high standards you place on yourself.
ONLY CHILD PERSONALITY
I left “onlies” for last because they won’t have had any of the experiences described above because they had a life without a sibling. They don’t know the pain of having your bunk bed kicked from below. They don’t know the pangs of jealousy of a sibling who got a bike for Christmas or the depth of despair when they can’t bring home a report card as good as their brothers or sisters. It’s just not in their experience. But don’t feel badly for them. They don’t know what they have missed.
Only is all they know and they are happy.
Contrary to what most people think, being an only child doesn’t make you egocentric, self-centred or unable to share. Only kids may not get sibling socialization, but instead, they join into the social world of their parents who are (hopefully) mature and refined, and share well, thank you very much!
They go to dinner with parents who prefer an adult meals to Chuckee Cheese. They watch how their parents settle disputes, which is vastly more eloquent and respectful than the “snatch and grab” method of siblings in a playroom.
So, onlies mature early and make good friends, but they seek out more mature older friends, or else seek out little buddies they can be a kind of big sister or brother to. It’s their own age peer group play that is the least natural or easy for them.
So how will that impact your parenting?
ONLY CHILD PARENTING
You’d think most people would know if they are an only child right? However, if you’re older sibling was 12 when you were born, you probably experienced life more like a “super baby” who had three parents telling you what to do!
If you spent the first five years as the only child and then your parents had another child, you have already completed most of the formative part of your personality development.
The same is true if you have step-siblings. It’s the experiences you had in the early years that matters most, so if you didn’t have siblings until your were eight – you were shaped as an only, but maybe not so hardcore given the experiences later in childhood.
You’ll have no experience with sibling fighting so an only may be over reactive if kids are physical with one another. They may find life very busy and loud and overwhelming at times with the BUZZ of a larger family. They may need more time alone to replenish their battery, which their partner or children may perceive as “checking out” of the family or avoiding obligations.