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What Order Are They?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We never really know what goes on inside our children’s minds. We may make educated guesses, and then do the best we can with that information. Well, here’s another tool to add to your toolbox of guesses. Understanding birth order can give us a bit of insight into what our kids are thinking and deciding about the world and their role in it. I’m going to outline here some of the common traits among birth order cohorts, and I’ll include some thoughts on how to use this information to better relate to your kids. And you just might learn something interesting about yourself, too…

First of all, there are two types of birth order: psychological and chronological.  Chronological is obvious – it is literally what order your kids were born in. But many factors can influence our behaviour, and that’s where psychological birth order comes in. If there are more than four years between children, typically we consider that to be a “new” family, for example. So if you have a family with kids who are 13, 10, and four, although that younger child is chronologically a baby or the third of three children, psychologically she may behave more like an only child. Sometimes, due to illness or other outside influences, a child moves away from his chronological position, even if all the children were born close together. Let’s say the eldest child in the family has some sort of health issue that requires a lot of care and attention. In that family, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the next child in line to behave more like an eldest, because she is the one taking on the responsibilities and roles of a typical eldest child, even though she is the second. So remember, as you’re reading the descriptions, that “everything can be different”, as Adler would say.

Let’s start at the beginning with eldest children. They are probably the most consistent group when talking about birth order. You can probably come up with a few descriptors for oldest children yourself: responsible, goal-oriented, perfectionistic, competitive, leaders, conservative, organized… Because these kids do everything first in their families, they often develop the mistaken belief that in order to matter or be important they must be the first or the best at everything. These kids are generally cautious to some degree, and like to consider all of their options before making a decision, regardless of how minor. Eldest children generally respond the best to authority, so the mere threat of getting in trouble is often enough to get them back on the straight-and-narrow. Because of this sensitivity to authority and getting in trouble, eldest children can sometimes be pleasers, choosing to placate the people around them rather than run the risk of being scolded or punished. And on a final note, all eldest children were at one point only children. So there is an element of being “dethroned” from their privileged position of being the only, and the first, in the family, which many then try to recapture by being the first and the best, as their siblings race up behind them.

As a parent, it’s important to recognize that too much support for your child’s desire to do well and be the best may backfire dramatically. Encourage your child to try new things and run the risk of being bad at them, instead of allowing him to focus only on what he knows he can already do. And don’t place a disproportionate amount of expectations or responsibilities on him. While his natural leading abilities might make it easy for you to rely on him that way, his recognition that he is doing more than his siblings may make for some tension and dislike for his brothers and sisters.

There are lots of kinds of middle children. You might have a middle of three kids, or a middle of seven, so the middle children sometimes find their positions differently in each family. However, there are some general characteristics that seem to apply to many middle kids. They tend to have some level of resentment, in that they don’t have the privileges of the oldest, or the benefits of the baby. Sometimes kids in the middle will adopt the mistaken interpretation that they need to stand out in some way in order to belong or matter. When they see that their elder sibling is excelling in school (which is typical of first borns), the middle child often makes an unconscious decision not to compete with his big sis, and instead chooses to make his mark by standing out in a different way. Often this is in a social context, by having lots of friends, by being the peacemaker or mediator, or perhaps by excelling in sports. These kids are generally more easygoing than their older siblings, and can empathize with the underdog, because they see themselves that way, too.

Encourage middle children to speak up for themselves and not just work at keeping the peace. Recognize their efforts at creating their own path and their own uniqueness within the family. And don’t, for Heaven’s sake, say, “Why can’t you be more like your big brother?” All that does is encourage your child to feel as though you really do like the big brother better, that you don’t understand the middle child and how hard it is being after this brother, and it fosters incredible animosity between siblings. All in all, there’s no up-side to it, because it won’t motivate a middle child in any way.

Now we come to the baby. If you’re an eldest or a middle child, as soon as you heard that word, you probably thought “spoiled.” And there may be some truth to that. Parents who know that this will be their last child sometimes get nostalgic and unwilling to recognize their child’s true capabilities, and it’s easy to fall into the pampering trap. The mistaken belief of youngest kids is typically that they need to keep others in their service in order to belong and matter. Charming, amusing, fun, creative, and energetic are all words typically associated with the baby in the family. However, these kids can run into problems when they get to school, for instance, in that they can get so used to believing that they need others to do things for them, they essentially have an expectation that the teacher will do the learning for them, too. Tied in to this need for service can be a lack of belief in their own ability, which is crippling for a child (and extremely taxing for the parent!). But at the same time, sometimes the opposite is true. Some kids develop the notion that they need to work extra-hard to catch up to everyone, and in essence become overachievers.

It’s important that youngest kids have responsibilities in the house, too. Their abilities should be encouraged as early as possible, with things like setting the table and dressing themselves. Try to play up their other great qualities and achievements, other than, “She’s so cute!” Teach youngest children that they have something of value to contribute, and watch their self-perception soar.

And lastly we have only children. Often these kids appear more “adult” at younger ages than most of their peers, simply because they spend so much of their time with adults, who then become their formative role models. These kids typically have a keen sense of justice, and believe strongly that everyone should be treated equally. (Great for civil rights movements, not so great when Mom is cutting birthday cake and her only child is watching her every move to make sure that no one gets an even slightly bigger piece.) These kids are generally obedient, self-motivated, and content to do things on their own, and share a lot of characteristics with first borns. Only children are also typically very demonstrative with their emotions, and are prone to tantrums long past the “terrible two’s”.

Of course, not all families fit into neat categories. It’s important not to make assumptions or fail to recognize the individuality of all of our kids. Birth order isn’t meant to cram kids into little boxes, but to give us a glimpse into their thoughts and interpretations, so in those moments where we look dumbstruck at each other and say, “I don’t get it. Why would he do that?!” we have a way of understanding their behaviour. If we understand each other, it becomes easier and more joyful to meet each other’s needs. Which is a great gift we can give to our family.

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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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