There is a lot of debate among psychologists and child development experts about whether or not birth order has an impact on a child’s personality and behavior. In other words, there are some people who believe that whether a child is the “oldest” or “youngest” in a family may determine some of his or her personal characteristics but others say that these theories about the impact of birth order simply aren’t true. The real truth is probably that birth order can play a role in impacting your child’s personality but it is only one factor out of many factors that contribute to the total personality that your child develops.
Some Basic Birth Order History
The first person to suggest that birth order was important to a child’s psychological development was a psychologist named Alfred Adler who worked in this field during the early twentieth century. Adler believed that children born first in the family ended up having to take on an abnormal level of responsibility than the other children which could result in psychological problems. Likewise, he believed that the youngest children in the family would lack any need to take responsibility for themselves or others and therefore would have issues related to this lacking. The birth order theories that have developed over time expand upon and alter those ideas suggested first by Adler.
Some Common Beliefs About Each of the Birth Order Traits
Here is a look at some of the most common traits that are believed to be associated with specific birth order placement:
Oldest children often bear the brunt of responsibility for their younger siblings. They are placed in a care providing and protective role for the younger siblings and therefore may tend to be more responsible in their lives in general. This can result in a desire to control the people and situations around them. Oldest children are usually the “good” children of the family who follow the rules and set the examples for younger children. Positive traits that are typically associated with oldest children include their leadership abilities and ambition.
Middle children often have a difficult time trying to figure out who they are and what their role is within the family. The middle child is always competing with both the oldest and the youngest children in the family. This often causes the middle child to do things to get attention which may be in the form of acting out or may simply be developing outgoing characteristics that garner him or her the attention that is desired. Positive traits that are typically associated with middle children include an ability to get along with almost anyone and a generally easy-going approach to life.
It is typically believed that youngest children are used to having things taken care of for them and therefore don’t develop a strong sense of responsibility. They may suffer from low self-esteem because they don’t learn to do things for themselves and are always trying to catch up to older siblings. At the same time, this child is usually spoiled and expects to receive what he or she wants. Positive traits associated with being the youngest child include a strong sense of creativity and a sense of humor.
Only children are considered to be in a different category than other children because they do not have sibling interaction and therefore grow up primarily around adults. Only children who grow up as the sole center of parental attention may have trouble separating from parents, difficulty getting along with other children and may seek to always be the center of attention since that is what the child is used to at home. Positive traits of the only child include a sense of maturity and a strong sense of self-control.
Beliefs about the Variations on Birth Order Placement
Psychologists today who believe that birth order does have an impact on psycho-social development tend to believe that this is far more complex than just simple traits of “oldest”, “middle” and “youngest” children. It is believed that big gaps in age between siblings, differences in gender, blended family issues and other factors can significantly alter standard traits of birth order. It is also believed that many other factors within the household environment and the family dynamic can significantly change the way that a child behaves in terms of birth order issues.
Some Common Sense Thoughts on Birth Order
My personal opinion is that some merit can be given to the role that birth order plays in creating personalities but that it isn’t the defining characteristic for most people’s psychological development. The interaction between siblings certainly plays a role in teaching kids how to interact with the rest of the world around them so it makes sense that someone growing up in the role of an eldest child / caretaker may behave differently in society than someone growing up in the role of a baby of the family. However, there are so many other things that happen within the interaction between family members that it doesn’t seem safe to assume that birth order along will determine how your kids act.
How Parents Can Deal with Birth Order
You obviously can’t determine in which order your children are born. And for the most part, you probably shouldn’t worry about the birth order of your children. However, parents can benefit from a basic understanding of birth order issues. This allows parents to compensate for some of the areas that may have the most significant impact on development. For example, a parent who knows that putting too much responsibility for caretaking on the eldest in a family can make proper accommodations for an outside care provider to play that role so that the eldest child in the family can develop in a healthy manner without that sense of responsibility.
Enjoy Your Children For Who They Are!
Ultimately you probably aren't going to be able to have a huge impact on whether or not birth order helps to shape who your child is. That's okay. Your child is unique because of all of the things that have contributed to create him or her including the relationship with siblings. Celebrate your child's individuality no matter what the birth order situation is in your family!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
TeachableMoments from California on August 22, 2012:
Very interesting hub. Voted up, interesting and useful. Thank you for providing such great information. I've often wondered how my birth order affected my psychological development and the development of fellow family members. Now, as a mother of an only child, I wonder how being an only child will shape my daughter's personality. I love how you added "celebrate your child's individuality." In the end, all parents should love unconditionally and never assume or predict tomorrow's outcome.
shauna on March 25, 2012:
I am the oldest of 5. I did feel that I had a lot of responsibility growing up to take care of my other siblings. I have to say that I am not the "bossy" or "controlling" type that all the oldest children get branded with. I feel like the oldest child can be a kind caretaker without the stereotypes of being controlling.
ombretta on March 05, 2012:
thank you somuch for this article. i have a paper due and this helped me so much!
Guest on March 05, 2012:
I'm the youngest of three, we're all 1 year apart. I'm creative and I do have a pretty good sense of humor. Other than that, the points were very wrong. I'm not a risk taker. I was never spoiled. Both my brother and sister was. I wasn't. I rarely got what I wanted and my needs were always put last. I never got to take tennis lessons I wanted because they were 'too expensive' though they were cheaper than my sister's soccer and my brother's baseball. I took an art class when I was 8, the teacher said I was almost as good as the other adults. Looking back on old pictures I found crumpled in an old box I did, I actually was pretty good. My parents dropped me from the class because it was 'too expensive' but again, the soccer and baseball continued for my siblings.
There were hardly any photos of my, my siblings had whole ablums full. No one ever let me talk. They spoke over me and do so even now. I'm always ignored. Sometimes I have to ask a question 5 times before my family will even acknoweledge me. I was very shy as a child and with my brother teasing me and shoving me around, coupled with being ignored by everyone else, it left me with really bad self-esteem. I never feel confident when I make decisions & I've always ever just had a small group of friends. I've never been 'social' as I find it difficult to make friends because I always say something lame.
Since I was shy as a kid, I found I was somehow more comfortable around adults. I went with my mom to visit her dad once a week when he was in the nursing home. I sat with them at family dinners while my sister and brother went downstairs to play. I didn't always get what they were talking about but I found it interesting.
Growing up I've always wanted to please my parents. I always did really well in school, never made trouble. I was the 'good girl'. Of all the kids in my family, my parents said I was the responsible one. My parents never worried about me. In fact, I think they often forgot about me because I wasn't creating havoc. I know my perspective is skewed but my brother and sister both got everything they've always wanted. Horseback riding classes to girl guides, baseball, soccer. If there points given and you added them all up, it' clear my parents just dragged me to my sibling's events.
I joined baseball in grade 8. My mom made it to ONE baseball game late. It was almost over. My dad forgot. They never went to any other games even when our team made it to the championships. And yet, I was dragged all over the state for soccer & baseball. My parents had no problems making every single game for my siblings. There was definitely favoritism and it wasn't aimed at me.
amy on February 06, 2012:
I can defenitly see this being applied to familys who have this exact order of oldest middle and youngest. I am the youngest and my siblings are 6+ years older than I. My sister is the oldest and she sometimes acts like a mother to me and likes to be in control. She also has more respect from our parents as well as expectations. My brother is the middle child and he does his own thing. He has a large social group and is very independent. I am theyoungest and find it hard to be independent. I am very social and creative but there is always a lingering feeling of doubt if I am alone. I also suffer from low self esteem because I never had a say or had my opinion even heard because I was dismissed as the "baby". Now I'm an adult and find it difficult to Make decisions confidently. Its interesting to see the effects of each dynamic of birth order.
sushu on January 14, 2012:
my older brother doesn't possess the qualities written in this article. He seeks attention all the time and always keep his point and always put his opinion at the top and makes me and my younger sister that we are incapable and we were born to fulfill his dreams.
Nichol marie from The Country-Side on May 05, 2011:
Thank you I have 4 children and with my oldest is only 6 and I can see that he does seem more responsible than I was at 10 and I am the baby of my family lol
Barb on February 25, 2011:
I found this very interesting. I am the youngest child of two with an almost 7 year gap from my older sister. I do have a sense of humour as stated and I am creative, however I believe the root of my low self esteem is from being bullied by the women in my family.My family of origin circumstances lead to me to having one child. They are in a league of their own and a delight. He also appears to be very happy with friends or alone and has never required any attention.He is quite serious much more than I was at his age and actually come to think of it I think he is still much more serious than the youngest child who raised hiw.
Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on February 03, 2011:
To Kathryn Vercillo: I enjoyed your job. I am interested in anything relating to birth order. Only children are unique children. I am an only child. As a child, I could mingle effortlessly with adults but I found other children to be insipid and childish. As a child, I loved the company of adults as I could learn a lot from them. Only children do have a large amount of self-control. However, we do not feel that we have to be at the center of attention because we received enough of that already as children. It is usually children from large families who STRIVE to seek ATTENTION because of their family size had to fight for attention from their parents who had to divide their attention equally among their children. Madonna is the most attention seeking person in the world and she is not an only child. She was one of eight children and her biography stated that in order not to be overshadowed by her siblings, she did ANYTHING to gain attention from her parents.
Charissa on November 22, 2010:
I am doing a research paper on the effect of birth order on personality. I need lots of people to fill out this survey, you can even send the link to other people if you would like. It is only 20 multiple choice questions. Thanks! Here's the link:
Kimberly Bunch from EAST WENATCHEE on March 23, 2010:
Thanks for the insight!
Skye on March 09, 2010:
I don't know what I would be. I grew up the first half of my life as the youngest child with two older brothers and three older sisters. The second half of my life I was pretty much the only child since I moved to a different state with my dad and never visited my siblings. Then I got two younger sisters that I've never met which makes me a middle child. So I don't know which one I would go with.
SamAntone on February 22, 2010:
Hey! I'm the sixth of ten, and I seem to fit the description; Early on I was an imitator. I'm easy-going for sure, and a bit creative. You can read about what I went through as a youth on my page.
Lamme on February 13, 2010:
I found this article very interesting. Have you done any research on the effects of disrupting birth order, whether through blended families or adoption?
Renee S from Virginia on February 05, 2010:
Very interesting. I've got three boys and this was fascinating to read.
mylittleangels from Texas, USA on January 28, 2010:
Great article I remember a little of this from my Psycology class Great Idea for an article
Shane Brown-Daniels from USA on January 16, 2010:
I find this subject area highly interesting, and had to write on it myself because there are neo-Adlerian theories that project that there are five instead of four birth order personalities. I like how you presented this Kathryn :)
amitkumarghosh from Hampshire, UK on December 27, 2009:
Interesting article. Informative and well presented. I also write on psychology , so it was of special interest to me. I am glad to follow you.
Sambodhi Prem on August 26, 2009:
I recently read Frank J. Sulloway's book 'Born to Rebel' about the impact of birth order and family niches on personality and by extension on history.
He's a science historian who has applied Charles Darwin's evolutionary principles to the research of personality development, through a statistical research project that took 26 years to complete.
An interview with the author: http://bit.ly/xTLl9
His website: http://www.sulloway.org/
Lisa HW from Massachusetts on June 14, 2009:
Dolores, what you've said rings a bell for me. I'm a middle child (although there is 4/5 years between all of us, and more spacing is said to mean being less impacted by birth order). For the most part, most of what is said about middle children doesn't match my own experience. I do get along with everyone, so that much is true. I never competed with either sibling. I was happy to be "smack dab in the middle". I did not want attention because I saw my older sibling enjoying a lot of attention and doing things that pleased our parents, and I thought (not using these words at the time), "How undignified". I wasn't about to try to please anyone. Since I wanted to be taken seriously, I certainly did not envy my baby brother. I'm probably the most "inward" of us, but I'm definitely the most sociable as well (it's a weird combination, but it's a matter of learning to overcome the inwardness by becoming very sociable). While I didn't have the "attention" in the family, I guess I took my sociable personality outside and was kind of a "quiet leader" among friends. What you said about middle kids being free to "find their own true selves" really rings a bell with me. My elder sister always said she admired that I did what I wanted to do, rather than what would please our parents. I never "acted out". I had far more attention from adults than I wanted and wished they'd "get their minds off me". :) The biggest thing for me was having people watching for signs that I had "issues" because of being a middle child. That, alone, was enough for me to think, "Get your mind off me because you don't know me." My parents were great, but the world is so often misguided when it comes to truly knowing what's going on in a child's head. I'm probably closest to both my siblings, which, to me, is the nicest place to be in the birth order. I did have something of an "issue" with being seen/treated as "the little one" (of two sisters), and as if being "the little one" equalled being just a little less important. That taught me not to look for any validation or sense of importance from anyone else; and I suppose, in some ways, it taught me to feel kind of less important (not a good thing). That's probably what made me kind of "bypass" my famly (in terms of trying to establish myself as "equal") and take my "identity-building" directly to the outside world. Sometimes, though, not growing up feeling like a Big Cheese helps a person develop an appropriately small ego. :)
Dawn Gagnon from South Carolina on April 17, 2009:
This article from my own experience is dead on accurate~ thumbs up~~
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on April 15, 2009:
i remember when they said the middle child suffers because he felt left out and was kind of neglected being in the middle and all, but that later thought came to see the middle child as mentally healthy because they are left alone to become their own true selves, they don't have to prove themselves like the oldest control freak, attention hogging oldest child and are not infantilized like the youngest...so who really knows
MotherHubber from Southern California on March 27, 2009:
Kathryn, thank you so much for writing this hub (it was my request that you answered). It was informative, yet accessible.
As a mother of 3 young children, ages 6, 3, and 1, I found the information that you provided to be really useful. Additionally, I am married to an "only" child, so I was pleased to see that you addressed that distinction, as well.
Thanks once again for a very well-written hub. I will be sure to join your fan club!
lyubansk from Urbana, Illinois on March 18, 2009:
Adler's treatment of birth order was also quite complex. He too discussed a "psychological" rather than a "chronological" order that was influenced by a variety of factors including gender and age of siblings. In general, we now know that there are three main determinants of people's personality: genetics, shared environment, and unique environment. Birth order and relationship with siblings fall into the latter two categories. On the one hand, the siblings may share the same parents and home environment. On the other, they often have unique relationships with each other and often unique roles in the family. Psychologists are still studying the relative influences of shared and unique environments.
Adi on February 23, 2009:
informative, well written, and eminently readable...