A person’s gender, age, place of birth, accent, manners, etc., are the matters people take into account when describing or evaluating an individual. Birth order appears to be one of these matters as well. Birth order, as used in this paper, indicates a child’s place in the family. Birth order has an advantage of being easier to check than other characteristics. This type of study makes it possible to ask a person about their siblings without offending or taking too much of their time. Some individuals tend to determine the birth order of others simply by observing their behavior. Parents have a tendency of stereotyping their children according to their birth order. Thus, birth order brings up variations in the way the parents treat their children. Differences in parental attitudes and behaviors, in turn, greatly influence a child’s personality. Parental attitudes and behaviors refer to the way parents treat their children with regard to a child’s birth order. Although birth order and parental attitudes and behaviors tend to influence a child’s personality, a child’s place in the family does not explain everything about that child. Whether a child happens to be a firstborn, a lastborn, or somewhere in between, parents need to become aware of stereotyping by looking beyond it, and attempting to treat each child equally and uniquely.
In today’s society parents pay different amounts of attention and attend differently to children of opposing birth order. Parents have distinct expectations for each of their offspring’s. A study done by Spitze and Logan showed that parental attitudes towards their children may be affected by their number, gender, and birth order. These factors also
influence the closeness the child feels towards his parents. Furthermore, the study shows that as the number of siblings increases in the family the oldest and youngest children tend
to be closer to their parents than the middle children (Spitze and Logan 871).
Parents also tend to have higher expectations for their oldest children than for children of any other birth order. New parents do not have much experience when they have their first child and therefore tend to be extremely strict with them. They want to be the “perfect” parents, setting and example for their firstborn so that he, in turn, would set a good example for later-borns. Not only do parents set high expectations on their oldest children, but they also look for children to satisfy all of their expectations. Differences in achievements are due to parental expectations. The study suggested that future achievements are influenced by differences in parental treatment with regard to birth order. Bradley and Mims state: “They parents also treat oldest children in the family differently from the ways they treat subsequent children. . . in our society, first-born children occupy higher status, higher pay, and higher power occupations” (Bradley and Mims 447). High parental expectations become a problem when their first-born develops a low self-esteem due to the fact that he is unable to satisfy all of the expectations set on him. The child may not realize that his parents might expect more than he can handle, creating a slow deterioration of his self confidence and self belief.
Likewise, parents tend to be extremely overprotective with their first child. In another discussion by Forer, the author states that “parents are usually more tense and anxious when the first child is born than they will be with later children because they are
uncertain of their ability to care for a child. Their inexperience may cause them to expect more of their first child than they will expect of later children” (Forer 97). And so the first child immediately becomes the “crown prince” or “crown princess” of the family (Forer 97). He becomes used to having the undivided love and attention from his parents.
Later when Mommy and Daddy bring home a “wrinkled little bundle” and call it a new little brother or sister, the firstborn’s world becomes shattered in a matter of minutes (Leman 143). They must now share their parents complete devotion and care with another sibling. Dr. Leman notes how the firstborn will most likely act upon the news of his new brother or sister:
Namely, it means that he’s no longer numero uno, the center of everyone’s attention and the apple of all the older eyes in the family. It also means that he’s going to be expected to share his toys and that he’ll be told to “behave” himself or to “act his age” when that’s really exactly what he’s always been doing. The firstborn isn’t at all sure how to react to the usurper, and if he’s young enough, he may decide that the best thing to do is to compete with the baby on its terms. In other words, he’ll revert to his own infancy. He may become a fussy eater or develop bowel and bladder problems. He may begin to throw temper tantrums or revert to baby talk. After all, the baby does all these things, and they sure work for him (Leman 152).
However the loss of attention is not the only subtle change that the first born is subjected to after the birth of a younger sibling. As Forer indicates, it is also the change in duties and responsibilities: “He the first child is soon expected by his parents to assume new duties and responsibilities. He will feel the effects of being, in their eyes, much more grown-up than they previously perceived him to be” (Forer 97).
All of these changes and new responsibilities teach firstborns to become highly organized, preparing them for life in the real world. While the youngest child will become nice and cozy under his parents’ wing, the oldest will have to face the world on his own, trying to perfect the dependability set upon him. This concept most of the time, will turn the first born into a perfectionist. He will be turned into a superorganized, superachieving, pillar-of-the-community type of person. While the attitude of later born seems to be “Okay, I agree, something needs to be done about it. I wonder who will do it,” the firstborn is most likely to say ” I will do it ASAP” (Roger 213). The first child is most likely to volunteer himself, sometimes at his own expense, because of “it has to be me or it wont be done” attitude. In Gabriel’s scenario Phil was a man who “worked himself to death, finally and precisely, at 3:00 A.M. Sunday morning” ( Gabriel 5 ), thinking that he alone could do the job, accepting no help from the outside. He put his job before his family, in some way thinking that if he succeeded at his job, he would make his family and himself happy. While trying to take more upon himself than he could handle, Phil tried to overachieve and overcome his own abilities. However he failed to realize that there is only so much that he is able to do without the help of others.
Phil, a firstborn child was born to lead. Dr. Leman comments on the leadership quality in firstborn children: “The firstborns are out there on the cutting edge, daring to take risks, while their younger brothers and sisters most often wait to be told what their role in all of this is supposed to be. Taking the initiative is a natural tendency of firstborns, and it’s a quality that often leads them into positions of leadership” (Leman 34). All these qualities are formed in firstborns by their parents, who tend to think that the more the
firstborn is able to do, the more pressure they need to put on him so that he can do even better. Because parents make a big deal out of their oldest children setting a perfect example for later-born children, firstborns may “spend their entire worrying about the impact they are having on the lives of their youngest brothers and sisters” (Leman 48).
While the life of the oldest child may sometimes be a drag, having to take the youngest one wherever, the life of the youngest has many advantages. Parents are not as strict with their youngest, which may be the result of being tired of making their first child “toe the line”. The youngest child feels secure under the wings of the oldest sibling, knowing that their older brother or sister will protect them. However, in situations where the youngest is being teased by his older sibling, parents become the protectors. The mistake that parents often make is trying to keep their youngest child a baby for as long as possible. At which point one may conclude that the life of the youngest child is full of honey. However, looking into the life of that youngest child one sees the complications and problems of being the baby. It would not come as a surprise when complaints are heard from the youngest sibling about the pressures that are put upon them by their parents and older children. The youngest child feels torn between the demands of the parents and of the older siblings. Leman once again notes:
Mom and Dad may think they’re in charge here, but the firstborn knows better, and so does his younger sibling. That means, of course, that little sister has her own unique environment that brings its own set of problems. For example, at least part of the time she may be torn between doing what her parents want her to do and doing what her older brother wants her to do (Leman 28).
In this situation one of the people will be left dissatisfied. Whoever the youngest child decides to listen to, either parents or an older sibling, the child cannot satisfy everyone.
The feeling of dominance and leadership over their younger siblings may lead the older siblings to tell them what to do. In a study done by Baskett, the writer points out that oldest children are expected to be dominant leaders, who are self-confident, mature, responsible, and obedient types of people (Baskett 441-445). As older child feels more experienced as he should and therefore wants his youngest sibling to listen to him, not to repeat his mistakes, and to look up to him. Baskett also mentions that the youngest children are expected to be likable, sociable, and popular followers, but also less obedient, lesser achievers, and not especially secure (Baskett 441-445). Another psychiatrist, Roger, agrees with Baskett and generalizes that oldest children seek to understand, are prepared to lead, care for, guide, and protect, expect to control, and be in charge. The youngest children, however, want to be understood, are carefree, and may even be careless. They also want to consult with someone older, as well as to be in competition with them (Roger 211).
Leman also explores the hardships of being the middle child. He states:
Being the middle child means you don’t get as much attention as the oldest and youngest children. The oldest is important simply because he’s the oldest. . . As for the youngest, he’s special because he’s the baby, and he’ll always be the baby, even if he’s six four and weighs 245 pounds. Being the middle child means living in a sort of anonymous haziness. But that’s not all bad! If you’re anonymous, you can get away with occasional laziness and indifference. You’re not pushed as hard or expected to accomplish as much as the one who came before you (Leman 5).
The middle child, not being pushed or pressured as much to achieve a particular goal, may in some cases never fulfill his potential. However, it is without as doubt better than being pressured to live up to an almost impossible to achieve standards.
As Forer indicates in his study, it is not that the parents do not love the middle child, it is just that everyday contact with them is usually divided with other siblings. Forer describes the middle child as “threatened by severe feelings of insecurity and inadequacy because he lacks recognition within the family . . . he is in danger of not receiving enough affection . . . he suffers form lack of attention” (Forer 111).
The exact opposite of a middle child would most probably be and only child. The only child doesn’t have to share the love, affection, and attention of his parents with any other sibling, allowing him to believe that the world revolves around him. If spoiled by his parents the middle child will grow up to be an extremely selfish and stubborn person, being used to getting anything that he so desires. A number of only children are described as self-centered individuals. Leman comments on the self-centeredness of an only child and the problems that may arise due to it: “. . . whenever anything bad happens he automatically assumes that it is aimed at him. This occurs for two reasons: (1) because he sees himself as the center of everything and (2) because he has been sheltered and kept from any kind of harsh reality in his earliest years” (Leman 197).
The position in the family leaves an indelible stamp upon the style of life an individual leads. Birth order is extremely important in the makeup of a person and it profoundly affects that person. Only when people will understand birth order and
stereotyping, will they be able to find their own strengths and weaknesses. The family being a major force in a persons life, shapes him into what he is today. However there are many other forces at work in an individuals life as well, including his own determination and desires. Relationships could be drastically improved through the understanding of berth order and the effect it has on an individual. Parents must become aware of stereotyping and realize that while high expectations may force a child to succeed, those same expectations may harm the child’s self-esteem which would lead him into a troubled adulthood.
Parental Attitudes Towards Child Birth Order
Baskett, Linda Musun. “Sibling Status Effects: Adult Expectations.” Developmental Psychology 21 (1985): 441-445.
Bradley, Richard W. and Grace Ann Mims. “Using Family Systems and Birth Order Dynamics as the Basis for a College Career Decision-Making Course.” Journal of Counseling and Development 70 (1992): 445-448.
Brazelton, T. Berry and Cramer, Bertrand G.: The Earliest Relationship: Parents, Infants and the Drama of Early Attachments. Addison-Wesley, 1990.
Forer, Lucille K. Birth Order and Life Roles. Springfield: Illinois Press, 1969.
Gabriel, H. Paul. The Inner Child. New York: Time, 1990.
Leman, Kevin. Growing Up Firstborn: The Pressure and Privilege of Being Number One. New York: Delacorte Press, 1989.
Roger, Vivian. “Family Systems Theory in the Workplace.” Journal of Counseling and Development 64 (1989): 211-220.
Spitze, Glenna and John R. Logan. “Sibling Structure and Intergenerational Relations.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 871-884.