Personality is a fickle thing.
Multitudes of factors converge, both before and after birth, to make us who we are. In the professional world, the study of these factors is one of the hottest fields of psychology, and it’s even hotter in the world of consumers—who hasn’t taken an online personality test, or given a curious click to that “What Color is Your Aura” online quiz?
The fact is that we yearn to understand ourselves. And for good reason—a greater understanding of how personality forms can help us be more deliberate about how we choose to develop our own, and even how we raise our children.
It’s common to talk about the role of genetics, class, geography and parenting style when it comes to personality, but there’s another huge factor that is too often either taken for granted, or not discussed at all: birth order.
Take a moment to consider where you fit within your own family. Are you the first-born? The middle kid? Perhaps you’re the youngest, or maybe you’re an only child. Where you fall within the hierarchy of your family has a huge effect on the development of your personality.
Let’s take a brief look at how this works.
University of Georgia psychologist Alan E. Stewart, in a field-defining 2012 work, distinguishes between what is known as “actual” birth order and what’s called “psychological” birth order. Actual birth order, as you might guess, is your actual, numerical placement within your family. Psychological birth order is your self-perceived position in your family.
Actual and psychological birth order can be different for any number of reasons, such as a large gap between the birth of siblings, a disabled sibling, or a blended family. But the important thing to remember is this: they can, and often are, very different. You’re not trapped within the role of your birth order.
That being said, let’s examine the general traits that tend to come from each of the different birth orders.
The firstborn child—or the one with the oldest “role” in the family—is, as you might know, the most likely to exhibit leadership skills, and to be rule and achievement-oriented.
This first child has the privilege of his or her parents’ complete attention—parents who are not already tired out from tending to the needs of siblings. This helps the firstborn start out with a better sense of self-confidence and security.
Things aren’t all rosy for the inaugural child, however. First-time parents often place all their expectations—and blame—on this child. Although he or she may receive all the attention, they may be micromanaged and critiqued at every turn, creating intense, overwhelming pressure to succeed. This can create a personality that equates love with success.
Knowing this can help parents become aware of the hopes and dreams they may be piling upon the backs of their first child, and can help that first child shake off the weight they place on themselves. Learning to relax and take life as it comes is a key skill for a firstborn child to develop.
The middle children often find themselves with parents who have hit their stride, and are calmer and more laid-back. They also have the advantage of having an older sibling to learn from—both from their successes and their mistakes. This can result in a child who develops quickly, both academically and socially.
They may, however, feel some jealousy toward their high-achieving older sibling who seems to soak up all the attention in the family with their constant stream of “firsts”—the first to ride a bike, to act in a play, to win an award, and so on.
The middle child may also occupy a place of invisibility in the family, as the older sibling is praised and the younger sibling is nurtured—they may find themselves alone more often than not.
If you were—or are—a middle child, remember that you are valuable, and that you have a wonderful, unique identity. You don’t have to strive to be anyone else. Just be you!
Parents of middle-children, remember that this child needs just as much attention as the others. Praise them, celebrate them, and love on them—it’s very easy to lose sight of this in the hectic day-to-day of a large family.
Finally, the youngest child—the baby of the family—will be pampered, nurtured, and looked after like no other, and so may develop social skills that get people to do what they want. Thus, they may be extremely charming and sociable.