Does birth order influence a child’s personality?

August 20, 2019

The Sydney Morning Herald feature by Dr Susan Moore and Dr Doreen Rosenthal

Does birth order influence personality?

There are so many myths about birth order, so much that the decision whether or not to have a second (or third, or fourth) child can be a vexxed one. Are first-born children spoilt? Are second-borns left behind, or destined to live in the shadow of their older sibling? A new book on birth order, and its possible impact, tries to shed some light on these questions.

Firstborns tend be more conscientious, hard-working, responsible and assertive than their later-born siblings. As a result, firstborns are likely to be high achievers academically across fields ranging from politics to science.

Second-borns, on the other hand, are often more relaxed, less driven but more creative than their older siblings. They may seek to succeed in areas where they don’t need to compete with their older sibling. Some are rebellious and less “easy” as children.

Of course not every first-born and second-born child fits these profiles, and some studies show no effects of birth order on personality. Many factors influence how children develop; birth order is just one of them.

Do parents treat first- and second-born children differently?

Firstborns are the trailblazers for many of life’s milestones and experiences

Firstborns are the trailblazers for many of life’s milestones and experiences but they are often also subjected to many rules and regulations as parents start with rigid expectations of themselves as parents and of correct behaviour. These ideals are much harder to live up to in the busy-ness of a two-child household than when there is only one.

A first-born child receives undivided attention from parents during their early and critical developmental years. That attention is often accompanied by high expectations on the part of inexperienced parents as they learn how to parent.

But it’s not always easier for firstborns.

They can appear especially vulnerable to stress, possibly because the weight of expectations hangs heavy. As one said: “I always felt a sense of the responsibility to satisfy my parents’ ambitions for me. So I worked really hard in school to get the good marks I needed to go to university. As a result, I think I sacrificed some of the social life that my school friends enjoyed.”

Once the second child comes along, firstborns can feel very put out as they are no longer the focus of undivided attention.

Once the second child comes along, firstborns can feel very put out as they are no longer the focus of undivided attention. Some psychologists have labelled these feelings as “dethronement”, when the prince or princess of the household must learn to share attention and resources. Especially for toddlers, this can be a difficult time full of high emotions, uncertainty and sometimes regression to more babyish behaviours.

Second children learn to share right from the start – they are born to it. But because of their younger age, they are fated to lag behind their older sibling in milestones and achievements. They can feel driven to prove themselves against the accomplishments of an older sibling, not realising that their lower level of achievement may be simply because of age differences.

Second children sometimes direct their energies toward areas not excelled in by their older siblings, focusing less on academic pursuits and more on creative, social or sporting endeavours. Some second children give up on trying to meet expectations, and become more relaxed and fun seeking, or even rebellious and defiant. One boy told us: “Nothing I ever did was as good as my brother. I used to try to be like him but in the end I gave up. What was the point?”

On the other hand, the second child may benefit from having calmer, more relaxed and confident parents. In the words of one young woman: “My older sister paved the way. Our parents were much stricter with her when she got to be a teenager. By the time I got to that age they relaxed a bit – probably because nothing particularly disastrous happened to my sister!”

So should you have a second child?

Of course, if that is what you and your partner want.

It has been said that a family of four – two adults and two children – provides the perfect one-to-one ratio of adult to child. Ideally, there is an adult available to give full attention to each child when needed. As well, in a two-child family, there is less pressure on each sibling to perform at the high standards often expected for only children. Siblings have each other as company and support, and they learn to share and develop social skills through interacting with one another. And although two can be more stressful for parents to manage, especially in their early years, not all parents find this to be the case. Indeed, some have remarked that going from one to two is “a breeze”!

But, be aware, there is no such thing as the perfect family size. One-child families work really well for some; a wealth of research has debunked myths about only children necessarily turning out spoiled, lonely or “peculiar”. Children with no siblings, one, or many, can be happy and well adjusted in families that are warm and loving, and who socialise their children with age-appropriate behavioural boundaries.

It is not family size that determines household happiness but the quality of relationships between parents and children. More important than the number of children you have is whether you and your partner are in the position to nurture family closeness and provide an environment that is safe, secure, and loving.

Parenting tips

  • Try to make sure that each child gets some special time alone with you most days, whatever their age.
  • Don’t compare one child to the other. It doesn’t foster good sibling relationships to be constantly told you’re not doing as well as your brother or sister. Try to acknowledge and praise the special strengths of each child.
  • Let your children know that they are equally loved and equally special, even though the younger one might need you more often and the older one might have more privileges.
  • Work at fostering good sibling relationships. Encourage activities that your children can engage in together.
  • Help siblings to support and nurture each other. Encourage them to take interest in each other’s welfare and activities.
  • Help siblings work out their conflicts without taking sides, if possible. Teach them how to listen and express their needs in non-adversarial ways. Look for win-win solutions when children argue.

As published in The Sydney Morning Herald –

Second Child: Essential Information And Wisdom To Help You Decide, Plan And Enjoy, by Dr Susan Moore and Dr Doreen Rosenthal, is out now.

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