Birth Order is Simple

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By Dr. Kevin Leman
Known for his practical wisdom with a smile, Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known Christian psychologist, New York Times bestselling author, radio and television personality, and speaker. The author of 38 books, Dr. Leman and his wife, Sande, now live in Tucson, AZ. They have 5 children and 2 grandchildren. Check out lemanbooksandvideos.com and bakerpublishinggroup.com.

Birth order is simple, but it’s not simplistic. There are standard birth order rules, and there are also exceptions to the standard birth order rules. Why should you care about birth order? Because birth order can give you some important clues about your personality; your relationship with friends, co-workers, and loved ones; the kind of job you have; and how you handle problem solving.

Birth order is really the science of understanding your place in the family line. Were you born first? Second? Third? Or even farther down that line? Wherever you landed, it has affected your life in countless ways.

THE FIRSTBORN

Firstborns or onlies tend to be conscientious, well organized, serious, goal oriented, achieving, people pleasers, and believers in authority. And when you add other signs of firstborns and onlies, such as perfectionistic, reliable, list maker, critical, scholarly, self-sacrificing, conservative, supporter of law and order, legalistic, and self-reliant, you can see why firstborns usually get more ink in the write-ups of life. Firstborns are often the achievers, because they are driven toward success and stardom in their given fields.

Many firstborns do fit the description of strong willed and aggressive. But there are plenty of firstborns who are compliant—they’re the model children who grew up to be pleasers of others. They still have all those firstborn qualities, but they’re always in a very reliable, conscientious, “how can I please you?” package.  

Compliant firstborns tend to be good students and good workers, because they started out with a very strong need for Mom and Dad’s approval. Then, of course, they need the approval of other authority figures: teachers, coaches, bosses.

The downside of being a compliant firstborn is that you can attract the great white sharks of life. I often counsel compliant firstborns who are getting chunks taken out of them by a spouse, a boss, or friends. The classic scenario includes a compliant firstborn working in middle management for a superintendent or manager who has a way of piling on the work.

While compliant firstborns have a strong need to be conscientious, caregiving servants, there is another brand of firstborn who is assertive, strong willed, a high achiever, and a hard driver. These assertive firstborns set high goals and have a strong need to be king or queen pin. And along the way, they often develop badgerlike qualities—in other words, they can scratch, claw, and bite.  

While some firstborns become powerful leader types, others stay in the background doing exacting work like editing, bookkeeping, and accounting.

Whether compliant or powerful and assertive, there are at least two good reasons why firstborns come in such downright upright (and often a little uptight) packages. Those two reasons are Mom and Dad. Oldest children serve as “guinea pigs” for parents who have never done this kind of thing before. No wonder the kids have more than their share of stress. Brand new parents are typically a bundle of ambivalence—one side overprotective, anxious, tentative, and inconsistent; the other side strict, disciplined, demanding, always pushing, and encouraging better performance.

Few will deny that the family overdoes things with the firstborn. Parents as well as grandparents record every cry, look, whim, or move with a video camera. Research indicates that firstborns walk and talk earlier than laterborns. No surprise there. With all the coaching, prodding, and encouragement they get, they probably do it in self-defense!  

That firstborn children often go on to become the leaders and achievers in life isn’t necessarily their idea, but with only parents (and maybe grandparents, aunts, and uncles) for role models, they naturally take on more grown-up characteristics. This is why firstborns are often serious and not much for surprises. They prefer to know what’s happening and when; they thrive on being in control, on time, and organized—all characteristics that stand adults in good stead.  

Also remember that a child’s personality is pretty well formed by the age of 5. When the firstborn is very young—starting before he is even 12 months old—he is already observing his parents and noting the right way to do things. When you think about it, firstborns basically learn only from adults—those big, perfect people who do everything correctly. No wonder they’re so willing to break their necks to be right, on time, and organized.  

THE MIDDLE CHILD

The official definition of a middle child is a person born somewhere between the first, or oldest, in the family and the last, the actual baby of the family. This results in the middle children feeling they were born too late to get the privileges and special treatment the firstborn seemed to inherit by right. And they were born too soon to strike the bonanza that many lastborns enjoy—having the parents lighten up on discipline. I’m not alone in saying that middle children are a mystery. One reason for all the fogginess is that the term middle can mean many things.

When talking about the middle child, the most critical factor is the branching-off effect that is always at work in the family. This principle says the secondborn will be most directly influenced by the firstborn, the thirdborn will be most directly influenced by the secondborn, and so on. By “influenced,” I simply mean that each child looks above, sizes up the older sibling, and patterns his life according to what he sees.

The secondborn has the firstborn for his role model, and as he watches the firstborn in action, the secondborn develops a style of life of his own. Because the older brother or sister is usually stronger, smarter, and obviously bigger, the secondborn typically shoots off in another direction.  

Any time a secondborn child enters the family, his lifestyle is determined by his perception of his older sibling. The secondborn may be a pleaser or an antagonizer. He may become a victim or a martyr. He may become a manipulator or a controller. Any number of lifestyles can appear, but they all play off the firstborn. The general conclusion of all research studies done on birth order is that secondborns will probably be somewhat the opposite of firstborns.

Because laterborn children play off the ones directly above them, there is no surefire way to predict which way they may go or how their personality will develop. One thing, however, that’s not such a mystery about middle children: they usually feel the squeeze from above and below.

A number of middleborns have told me they did not feel that special growing up. “My older brothers got all the glory, and my little sister got all the attention, and then there was me” is a very familiar assessment. Somehow there just doesn’t seem to be a great deal of parental awareness of the middle child’s need for a spot in the pecking order.  

Middleborn children often hang out more with their peer group than does any other child in the family. That’s really no surprise because middles often feel like fifth wheels who are out of place and misunderstood at home, or like some kind of leftovers that always get bypassed and upstaged by the younger or older siblings.

No wonder, then, that friends become very important to the middle child, because friends make him or her feel special. Because of being squeezed and feeling like they don’t really fit in at home, middle children have a deep need to belong. The pack fills the bill. Because of this early search for friends and recognition outside the home while growing up, the middle child may be the one who moves away from the family as an adult.  

Although middle children are not as easy to paint in clear and vivid colors as firstborns or only children, we do know some things that can help adult middle children function with a better understanding of themselves and how they relate to others. 

Studies show middle children are the most secretive of all birth orders. As a rule, they do not choose to confide in very many people. They’re likely to be mentally tough and independent. Middle children are the last to seek the services of helping professionals such as psychologists, counselors, or pastors.

Studies also show that middleborns rate as the most monogamous of all birth orders. They are far more prone to stick to their commitments than other birth orders are. Research also shows that middleborns do not have as many hang-ups or problems as firstborns or only children.

Again, we can’t lay a blanket judgment on any birth order, but studies show that middleborns are much more prone to embarrassment, but of course they will never admit it. While they are prone to embarrassment, middleborns are often rebellious as far as convention is concerned, something that could obviously put them in embarrassing situations.  

THE LASTBORN

Youngest children in the family are typically the outgoing charmers, the personable manipulators. They are also affectionate, uncomplicated, and sometimes a little absentminded. Their “What? Me worry?” approach to life gets smiles and shakes of the head. Lastborns are the most likely to show up at the elementary school concert or the Sunday school picnic unzipped or unbuttoned in some delicately obvious area. Without doubt, they can be a little different.

A typical characteristic of the lastborn is that he is carefree and vivacious—a real person who is usually popular in spite of (because of?) his clowning antics. Get the family together for the big Thanksgiving or Christmas photo. Work tenaciously to maneuver everyone into place and to snap the picture when everyone looks halfway sane, and—whoops! Who’s that over on the left with the crossed eyes trying to touch his nose with his tongue? Yes, it’s lastborn Fletcher (who in this picture may be 26 years old) doing his thing for a laugh.

Or maybe Fletcher is doing his thing for other reasons. There is another strain of characteristics in most lastborns. Besides being charming, outgoing, affectionate, and uncomplicated, they can also be rebellious, temperamental, manipulative, spoiled, impatient, and impetuous.

From the time they are old enough to start figuring things out, lastborns are acutely aware that they are the youngest, smallest, weakest, and least equipped to compete in life. After all, who can trust little Festus to set the table or pour the milk? He’s just not quite big enough for that yet.

Lastborns instinctively know and understand that their knowledge and ability carry far less weight than that of their older brothers and sisters. Not only do parents react with less spontaneous joy at the accomplishments of the lastborn, but they may, in fact, impatiently wonder, Why can’t this kid catch on faster? His older brother had this down cold by the time he was 2½.

Part of the reason for this is that the parents get all “taught out” by the time the lastborn arrives. The tendency is to let the lastborn sort of shift for himself. It’s not unusual for babies of the family to get most of their instruction from their brothers and sisters in many areas. The parents are just too pooped for any more pedagogy.

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As you begin to understand birth order and how it influences you, you can improve your relationships in every arena of life. When you think about it, isn’t everything in life about relationships?

ResearchRyan Frank