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Birth Order


A chronological sequence of the birth of children in a family.

Research has correlated birth order with such aspects of life as temperament and behavior. For example, first-born children, when compared to their siblings, tend to score slightly higher on intelligence tests and to attain a slightly higher socioeconomic status. Some psychologists believe that birth order is a significant factor in the development of personality.

The psychologist Alfred Adler pioneered a study of relationships between birth order and personality. As part of his view that patients need to be understood in the context of their family environments, Adler hypothesized that a child's position in the family is associated with certain problems that are responded to in similar ways by other children in the same birth position. Adler stressed that it was not the numerical birth position itself that mattered but rather the situation that tended to accompany that position, and the child's reaction to it. Thus, for example, first-born children, when compared to their siblings, tend to have a greater chance of developing feelings of inferiority as their focal position in the family structure is altered by the birth of a sibling. Later-born children, on the other hand, tend to have stronger social skills, having had to deal with siblings throughout their lives, as opposed to first-borns, who have their parents to themselves initially and thus have their first socialization experiences with adults only. Later-borns, having had to compromise more at home, are better equipped to develop the flexibility that


Sibling rivalry is a normal part of family life. All children become jealous of the love and attention that siblings receive from parents and other adults. When a new baby is brought home, older children feel betrayed by their parents and become angry, directing their anger first toward the parents and later toward the intruder who is usurping their position. Jealousy, resentment, and competition are most intense between siblings spaced less than three years apart. Although a certain amount of sibling rivalry is unavoidable, there are measures that parents can take to reduce its severity and its potential effects on their children.

An older child should be prepared for a new addition to the family by having the situation explained and being told in advance about who will take care of her while her mother is in the hospital having the baby. The child's regular routine should be disturbed as little as possible; it is preferable for the child to stay at home and under the care of the father or another close family member. If there is to be a new babysitter or other caretaker unknown to the child, it is helpful for them to meet at least once in advance. If sibling visits are allowed, the child should be taken to visit the mother and new baby in the hospital.

Once the new baby is home, it is normal for an older child to feel hurt and resentful at seeing the attention lavished on the newcomer by parents, other relatives, and family friends. It is not uncommon for the emotional turmoil of the experience to cause disturbances in eating or sleeping. Some children regress developmentally, temporarily losing such attainments as weaning, bowel and bladder control, or clear speech, in an attempt to regain lost parental attention by becoming babies again themselves.

There are a number of ways to ease the unavoidable jealousy of children whose lives have been disrupted by the arrival of a younger sibling. When friends or relatives visit to see the new baby, parents can make the older child feel better by cuddling him or giving him special attention, including a small present to offset the gifts received by the baby. The older child's self-esteem can be bolstered by involving him in the care of newborn in modest ways, such as helping out when the baby is being diapered or dressed, or helping push the carriage. The older child should be made to feel proud of the attainments and responsibilities that go along with his more advanced age—things the new baby can't do yet because he is too young. Another way to make older children feel loved and appreciated is to set aside some "quality time" to spend alone with each of them on a regular basis. It is also important for parents to avoid overtly comparing their children to each other, and every effort should be made to avoid favoritism.

In general, the most stressful aspect of sibling rivalry is fighting. (Physical—as opposed to verbal—fights usually peak before the age of five). It is important for parents not to take sides but rather to insist that the children work out disagreements themselves, calling for a temporary "time out" for feelings to cool down, if necessary. Any form of parental involvement in squabbling by siblings can create a triangle that perpetuates hostilities. Over-insistence that siblings share can also be harmful: to retain a sense of individuality, children need some boundaries from their siblings in terms of possessions, territory, and activities. Furthermore, it is especially difficult for very young children to share their possessions.

Parents should take time to praise cooperation and sharing between siblings as a means of positive reinforcement. The fact that siblings quarrel with each other does not necessarily mean that they will be inconsiderate, hostile, or aggressive in their dealings with others outside the family. The security of family often makes children feel free to express feelings and impulses they are unable to in other settings.

can make their subsequent relationships more successful. It has also been posited that birth order influences one's choice of a marriage partner. The "duplication hypothesis" advanced by Walter Toman (1976) states that people seek to duplicate their sibling relationships in marriage, a duplication that includes birth order.

More specific research on the effects of birth order has generally focused on five ordinal birth positions: first-born, second-born, middle, last, and only-born child in a family. Studies have consistently linked first-born children and academic achievement. The number of first-born National Merit Scholarship winners was found to equal the number of second- and third-borns combined. Separate studies have found high academic achievement levels among first-borns in both urban ghettoes in the United States and at British universities. First-born children are generally responsible, assertive, and task-oriented, often rising to leadership positions as adults. They are more frequently mentioned in Who's Who publications than individuals in any other birth position and are overrepresented among members of Congress and U.S. presidents. Studies have also found that first-born students are especially vulnerable to stress and tend to seek the approval of others. Adler found that there were more first-borns than later-borns among problem children.

Second-born and/or middle children tend to feel inferior to the older child or children, since they do not realize that their lower level of achievement is a function of age. They often try to succeed in areas not excelled in by their elder siblings. Middle-born children have shown a relatively high level of success in team sports, and both they and last-borns have been found to be better adjusted emotionally if from large families. Studies have also found middle children to be sensitive to injustice and likely to have aesthetic interests. Generally trusting, accepting, and other-centered, they tend to maintain relationships successfully.

The last-born child, never dethroned as the "baby" of the family, often exhibit a strong sense of security and noncompetitiveness. As a group, last-borns are most successful socially and have the highest self-esteem levels of all the birth positions. One study found last-borns more likely than first-borns or only children to join a fraternity or sorority. Like youngest children, only children are never displaced as the youngest in the family. With only adult models to emulate within the family, only children are achievement-oriented and most likely to attain academic success and attend college. However, studies show that only children have the most problems with close relationships and the lowest need for affiliation. They are also the most likely to be referred for help with psychiatric disorders.

Sibling rivalry frequently erupts in households with two or more children, competing for the time, attention and affection of parents. The ages of children, and the years between them, can influence the degree and intensity of of fighting and arguing. First borns may resent responsibility placed upon them for their siblings. Middle children may feel "squeezed out" while last-borns may play on their baby position in the family. Mental health experts advise parents to listen to their children's feelings rather than deny their feelings or convince them to feel differently. To lessen the tensions, experts suggest that parents find time to spend with each child and share in each child's interests.

Further Reading

Leman, Kevin. The New Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. Grand Rapids, Mich.: F.H. Revell, 1998.

Toman, Walter. Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior. New York: Springer Pub. Co., 1993

Wallace, Meri. Birth Order Blues: How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet the Challenges of Birth Order. New York: H. Holt, 1999.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development