The impact of a person’s birth order is often underestimated as a significant factor in identity formation. The environment at home impacts on child development and birth order can influence how a child is treated by parents and siblings.
Our birth order impacts how we are perceived by our families and can relate to the amount of responsibility, independence and support we are given as children.
Birth order can also change the way parents raise their children. In most cases parents develop skills over time. The first-born child may be raised in an environment of anxiety if parents are unsure of their new role. This can result in more anxious first-born children. As parents become increasingly comfortable with raising children, they will typically given their second or third born child more freedom to explore etc.”
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“Ideally, children should be raised as individuals. Parents should do their best not to discriminate between children. Making comparisons between siblings is dangerous as this can promote competition” says Kimberley O’Brien, Child Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic.
However, the effects of birth order on a child’s personality may diminish over time. “As we mature we are less affected by the behaviour of our parents and our initial family unit” says Kimberley. While parenting effects diminish as children progress into adulthood, maternal bonds may differ according to birth order. One study of 426 mothers relationships’ with their adult children revealed a deeper emotional connection with their youngest child, yet they would be more likely to contact their oldest-born child when facing personal crises. (Suitor & Pillemer, 2007).
In general, first-born children are typically independent, trailblazers, with the propensity to be anxious or dominant. They have also been shown to be higher achievers, more conscientious and more patient. Second-born siblings are more open to new experiences and demonstrate more rebellious tendencies (Healey & Ellis, 2007).
The ‘middle child syndrome’ is popularly characterised by children who might be lacking in identity, trying to please others with no defined goals or vying for attention from their older and younger siblings. However there is little truth to this idiom, in Kimberley’s opinion. “Middle children can be influenced by their elder siblings, and have increased social opportunities with younger and elder peers.” One study of 794 adult middle-borns revealed no reduction in relationship quality with their family members. They did not preference friendships over family relationships any more than other birth orders (Pollet & Nettle, 2009).
Children born last in line typically gain more attention within the family, however they may display more immature and dependent characteristics than their elder siblings. On a positive note, they have been shown to be more agreeable and warm (Saroglou & Flasse, 2003). Interestingly, one study of 700 brothers found the younger brothers were 1.48 times more likely to participate in high-risk activities (Sulloway & Zweigenhaft, 2010). Another study revealed an interesting dissociation: boys with older siblings were more likely to engage in sports like football, whilst girls with older siblings were less likely to participate in extracurricular activities such as community service and school bands (Rees et al., 2008).
Only children can be easily dismissed as spoilt or lacking social skills, however their access to more resources and more parental attention certainly benefit their development.
The literature is divided as to whether birth order significantly impacts a child’s IQ, however one recent study revealed there are approximately 3 IQ points, or, a fifth of a standard deviation between first-borns and second-borns (Black et al., 2011). The discrepancy is not biologically determined, but more a result of birth endowments, allocated resources and the independent personality traits commonly associated with eldest children. These birth order effects are slightly more pronounced for girls (Kristensen & Bjerkedal, 2010). The same effects were found in a study of 2,500 adolescents in a child and adolescent psychiatry clinic (Kirkcaldy, Furnham & Siefen, 2009).
There have been theories that birth order can influence your choice of potential romantic partners. “Couples may be able to more easily relate to each other if they have the same birth order, such as two first borns may be comfortable with independence and increased responsibility. They may also have experience caring for younger siblings,” says Kimberley.
While there are documented effects of birth order on factors such as personality, risk-taking and academic performance, parents would do well to ensure each child is given equal attention, nurture and resources.
Black, S. E., Devereux, P. J., Salvanes, K. G. (2011). Older and wiser? Birth order and IQ of young men. CESifo Economic Studies, 57(1), 103-120.
Healey, M. D. & Ellis, B. J. (2007). Birth order, conscientiousness and openness to experience: Tests of the family-niche model of personality using a within-family methodology. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 28(1), 55-59.
Kirkcaldy, B., Furnham, A. & Siefen, G. (2009). Intelligence and birth order among children and adolescents in psychiatric care. School Psychology International, 30(1), 43-55.
Kristensen, P. & Bjerkedal, T. (2010). Educational attainment of 25 year old Norweigans according to birth order and gender. Intelligence, 38(1), 123-136.
Pollet, T. V. & Nettle, D. (2009). Birth order and adult family relationships: Firstborns have better sibling relationships than laterborns. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 26(8). 1029-1046.
Rees, D I., Lopez, E., Averett, S. L., Argys, L. M. (2008). Birth order and participation in school sports and other extracurricular activities. Economics of Education Review, 27(3), 354-362.
Saroglou, V. & Flasse, L. (2003). Birth order, personality and religion: a study among young adults from a three-sibling family. Personality and Individual Differences, 35(1), 19-29.
Sulloway, F. J. & Zweigenhaft, R. L. (2010). Birth order and risk taking in athletics: a meta-analysis and study of major league baseball. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(4), 402-416.
Suitor, J. J. & Pillemer, K. (2007). Mother’s favouritism in later life: The role of children’s birth order. Research on Aging, 29(1), 32-55.