"How parents interact with each child as he or she enters the family circle determines in great part that child's final destiny." Or so says Kevin Leman, author of "The Birth Order Book: Why you are the way you are." Now any quote that contains the words “final destiny” immediately sets me on edge. This is not the Lord of the Rings saga, Mr. Leman. And I'll tell you another thing, Kev, no one determines my final destiny but me. I'm sure his reply would be something to the effect of, "that is a classic youngest child thing to say." And he would be very right.
We are all familiar with the stereotypes associated with birth order. They have been ingrained in us since youth, and many of them hold water. But still it begs the question, how much of our personality and life choices are determined by the order in which we enter the world? Am I fated to live my life as a pampered only or a sullen middle? The factors are considerable.
The “Who's Who” of the Birth Order Community. We cannot have a discussion about Birth Order without mentioning the father of all these crazy kid theories, Alfred Adler. A once student of Freud, Adler is best known for pioneering many theories on inferiority. Yet he had much to say on the topic of how our sibling relations determine our personalities. Let's break down the framework of his personality profiles:
The Oldest Child = the Leader. Heralded as an example for the younger siblings the oldest usually develops traits such as serious minded, goal oriented and controlling. They may be protective of their younger siblings while simultaneously competitive over the attention lost when they were born.
The Middle Child = the Natural Mediator. Thrust in between the controlling first born and the free spirited youngest, the middle can often feel forgotten and lack a sense of belonging. The result is often traits such as peaceable, sociable, and maybe a tad rebellious.
The Youngest Child = the Entertainer. Without much responsibility falling to them the youngest can develop into fun loving free spirited individuals. They can be charming and quite social but with so much pampering from their parents they can also develop traits such as dependent, selfish, and control seeking.
Adler also had much to say about the Only Child. According to Adler, they can be spoiled and pampered but they also exhibit a lot of confidence and great social skills (Fun fact time! I have an only child friends who’s favorite catch phrase is “I know you love me.” You can’t make this stuff up, folks). He also postulates some theories on Twins, mainly that one usually exhibits dominance and they definitely can form some codependency.
That's all well and good, but what if you don't fit the mode? What if your oldest sibling is not at all structured and you are a very shy youngest? (Like me. I'm shy. Can't you tell?) What other factors are there to consider? Adler is just the beginning of our Birth Order family. For a deeper level of understanding we go to Alan E Stewart.
You are what you think you are. Developing much of his theory from Adler’s work, Stewart surmises that there are two types of birth order - actual and psychological. Your actual birth order, the numerical order you come out of the womb, is subject to several factors. Factors such as gender of all the children, space between the kids (more than six years is considered a new generation by most) size of your family and even possible illness of one of the children. All these factors form psychological (or perceived) birth order.
Stewart describes it this way: "we are not fated to live out a life dominated by the accident of the timing of our birth. You can't change your actual birth order but you can change the way you think about your role in the family." Allow me to illustrate this with an example. Actually I'm going to explain either way because I'm a youngest and we do what we want. (See what I did there?)
Let's say you are a youngest but your oldest sibling is more than a decade older than you and your middle sibling is handicapped. You may perceive yourself to be the oldest or middle of that family, perhaps taking on roles that would not normally be your responsibility. Thus your perceived birth order is different than your actual birth order.
A parent or a prophet? A study by Eckstein and Kaufman takes this one step further. They theorize parents play a large part in this as well. What they perceive and project onto their children will determine how they view themselves. If a child grows up being told, "you are the oldest you have to set the example for your siblings", no doubt they will go through life with a high sense of responsibility and a self-imposed sense of power. A parent’s perception could in effect produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Three is a crowd. But wait, I'm the youngest of a two sibling household! None of this applies to me. I hear you loud and clear sister! Look no further than the Ghent University and a study by Bernd Carette. Their study focuses on studying the goals of these children. The oldest usually shoots for self-referenced goals, charging out into the world on their own steam. The second is more interested in Other Referenced Goals, also known as Performance Goals. They want to achieve in goals set by others, often by the oldest.
We could continue to go down a rabbit hole of study after study for each unique and diverse household. Where does it lead us? We can learn quite a lot from the study of birth order. It can help us recognize patterns in ourselves and others. We might have a better understanding of which jobs we go for or even who we choose in a mate. Bonus Fun Fact time! Our old friend Kevin Leman has much to say on the marital pairing subject. According to him, the oldest, middle, and only all pair well with the youngest child! But the youngest paired with the youngest can lead to a "Who is running the asylum" situation, which in this Pearl’s Opinion is hilarious. (Looks like you've totally redeemed yourself Kev! But I digress.)
All that said, we need to take a page from Stewart's book. We are not fated to be anything. We cannot use our middle or only child syndrome as a crutch to act however we please. We create our own future through self-perception. And birth order, while helpful, is just one piece of the puzzle that forms our lives.
Sorry final destiny, but in this Pearls Opinion I create my own.