This paper discusses the significance of birth-order in personality development. Both folklore and modern psychological studies have indicated that a child’s position in the “family constellation” of siblings has a major impact on personality traits. First-born and last-born children show particular traits related to their positions in the family, while “middle” children also share distinct characteristics. These patterns are further modified by gender and by the age separations between children.
Apart from our parents, the individuals with the greatest impact on our early lives are our siblings: our brothers and sisters. While these siblings all have different and unique personalities, certain basic patterns have a major impact on the ways we relate to them, and they to us. In particular, the sex and birth-order of children shape the ways in which they relate to one another, and leave important traces in the adults that these children grow up to be.
Traditional law, custom, and folklore all agree that birth-order matters. In many cultures, primogeniture – the inheritance of the first-born son – is a central law in the transmission of family property. Even where primogeniture is not practiced, first-borns (especially first-born sons) are understood to be marked by a special status. The first-born is commonly imagined to be naturally dominant, yet folk literature often favors the latter-born (Sutton-Smith & Rosenberg, 1970, p. 3). Thus, for instance, the Bible portrays Cain, Adam and Eve’s first-born, as less favored by God and as becoming the first criminal. The Bible also shows, evidently with approval, how second-born Jacob tricks first-born Esau out of his inheritance – denouncing Esau for “selling his birthright for a mess of pottage.” In yet another Biblical story, a last-born, Joseph, stands above all his older brothers.
Lucille Forer (1969) has suggested that part of the reason for the enduring popularity of Louisa Alcott’s novel, Little Women, is that the personalities of the four fictional sisters fit the expected patterns: Meg, the oldest, is a serious-minded “mother substitute,” second-placed Jo is “playful and dreamy,” third-placed Beth is “gentle and delicate,” and Amy, the youngest, is pretty and gets the boys (pp. 116-117).
In modern times, the study of birth-order and its consequences has been formalized. It has ranged from the study of famous individuals and their birth-order patterns (Harris, 1964), to statistical studies of birth-order patterns among ordinary modern families (Toman, 1967; Forer, 1969). These modern studies have tended to bear out our intuitive sense that birth-order truly does matter.
There are as many possible birth-orders as there are children in any family, but we may distinguish them into a few basic birth-order patterns:
– Only children; a “null case” in which a child has no
older or younger siblings.
– The first-born of two children.
– The second-born of two children.
– The first-born of more than two children.
– The “middle” child or children of more than two
– The “multiple distal” (Toman, 1976, 20) or youngest of
more than two children.
All of these patterns are further modified by sex: the brother of an older sister has a substantially different experience than the sister of an older brother – indeed, according to Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg (1970), brothers of older sisters have more in common with their sisters than they do with brothers of younger sisters (p. 31). Creative interests seem more common among brother-sister pairs than among same-sex pairs of siblings (Sutton-Smith & Rosenberg, p. 23). In general, children with opposite-sex siblings relate more comfortably to members of the opposite sex than children without such opposite-sex siblings – a natural consequence, it would seem, of early life experience dealing with near-contemporaries of the other sex.
Age differences also matter. Closely-spaced children – one to three years – show both more sibling conflict as children and greater closeness in later life than do siblings with a greater age difference between them (Toman, 1976, pp. 32-38). Children spaced more than six years apart are, in Toman’s phrase “less than full-fledged siblings;” and the child with no age-close siblings has many of the characteristics of the only child.
Let us take a closer look at the traits associated with particular birth-orders:
First-Borns: First-born children tend to be somewhat dominant, simply because they are in childhood older, bigger, and stronger than their brothers or sisters. Psychological tests indicate that first-born children display more anger, and show a higher need for achievement (Forer, 1969, pp. 31, 36). Indeed, the achievement levels of first-borns have led to an image of “academic primogeniture” (Sutton-Smith & Rosenberg, 1970, p. 69), even though I.Q. tests have shown no correlation of innate intelligence to birth-order (Konig, 1963, p. 13).
These characteristic traits of first-borns can be attributed to their special relationship with their parents: the parents, lacking previous child-rearing experience, are likely to be stricter with the first-born than with later siblings (Forer, 1969, p. 31). At the same time, the first-born child – with no similar-aged siblings to identify with – is most likely to push toward an adult identity. Forer finds them more serious-minded (p. 53), and remarks that “later children seem more content to move gradually from child to adult” (p. 5). In the expression of Karl Konig (1963), “the first-born attempts to conquer the world” (p. 15).
Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg (1970) draw an interesting contrast between first-born Freud and latter-born Adler. Freud focused almost entirely on the parent-child relationship, while Adler showed much greater interest in the roles of siblings (p. 9). Irving Harris (1964) contrasts the political attitudes characteristic of first-borns with those of latter-borns. First-borns, according to Harris, have a more rigid, “connected” image of social relations, corresponding to closer identification with the parental authority. Thus, first-borns like Jefferson and Kant were more likely to conceive of general principles “as they should be,” while latter-borns like Hamilton and Machiavelli were more inclined to consider sloppy realities (pp. 142-167). Harris finds a similar contrast in literary tastes: first-borns create morally-normative “myths,” while latter-borns create escapist “fairy-tales” (pp. 168-196).
Middle Children: In families of more than two children, all but the first and last are “middle” children. These children labor under a disadvantage, having neither the dominant position of the first-born nor the “little darling” position of the last-born. Toman (1976) finds that middle children “feel overlooked or excluded” (p. 22). To Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg (1970), they are non-achievers, aggressive, less-popular, and “role diffuse” (p. 154).
Karl Konig (1963) argues that the birth-order of children forms a natural triad:
– The first-born attempts to conquer the world.
– The second-born tries to live in harmony with the world.
– The third-born is inclined to escape the direct meeting
with the world.
In families of more than three children, according to Konig, subsequent children repeat the same pattern – so that the fourth child has “first-born” traits, the fifth has “second-born,” and so forth (p. 15). Forer (1969), expanding on her discussion of third-born Beth in Little Women, notes that Konig has identified the third position as “natural” for a saint or martyr (pp. 116-117).
Forer also argues (1969) that middle children are less accustomed to privacy. This, however, may partly reflect the reality that in crowded multiple-child households, none of the children will have the privacy enjoyed by only children or children of two-child families (p. 122).
Youngest Children: these children, the “babies of the family,” enjoy certain advantages over middle children. Particularly if they are girls, they are likely to be treated as “little darlings” (Toman, 1976). The younger sister of a brother or brothers is likely to be somewhat fawned over by her big brother(s) (pp. 11-13), and is particularly feminine in personality traits. The youngest of sisters is also a “darling,” (pp. 16-18), and according to Toman has an advantage with boys. (Forer, 1969, pp. 116-17).
The position of youngest brother would, intuitively, seem less advantageous: whether the older siblings are brothers or sisters, the youngest has limited opportunities to display traditionally masculine traits of dominance and assertion. However, the studies bear out no special disadvantage to being a youngest son, though Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg (1970) do identify a higher level of inner conflict among younger brothers of older sisters (p. 23).
In general, modern studies of siblings generally tend to bear out the expectations which we find in stories and tradition. Only occasionally do we find unexpected patterns: for example, oldest children seem in psychological tests to be more eager to share their anxieties with others rather than keeping such anxieties to themselves (Sutton-Smith & Rosenberg, 1970, pp. 81-82). Intuitively, we might expect a “strong-but-silent” response from these serious-minded first-borns. Perhaps they became more willing to share troubles, since they were sharing them with younger siblings who were less likely to criticize them.
The bearing of birth-order on personality suggests that we might find significant social changes in societies where multiple-child families are giving way to smaller, two- or one-child families. In a traditional society of large families, most of the population grew up as “middle” children. In the smaller families of modern industrial families, a larger share of the population will have grown up as “oldest,” “youngest,” or “only” children. This, along with the tendency for adults in industrial societies to start families at a later age, could have an important effect upon the distribution of psychological patterns in the population. Further study in this area might prove fruitful.