How will our parenting decisions today affect the adults our children will become tomorrow? Molly Skyar, in an open conversation with her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, views parenting decisions through a psychologist's perspective.
Question: How much does the order in which she appeared in our family play a role in my child’s characteristics?
Dr. Susan Rutherford: There’s been a lot of writing and research done about the significance or lack of significance about the order in which you and your siblings arrived in your family. As a result, experts generally agree that birth order does indeed play a role in determining life-long personality traits.
In the last three years alone there were two studies done that looked at measurable effects of birth order and they found that both IQ and personality were affected by your order in your family.
In terms of IQ, a first-born child generally tests between three and five IQ points higher than her younger siblings. Personally, I don’t consider this disparity to be that important because I’ve assessed a lot of IQ testing over the course of my career and can tell you that a three-to-five-IQ-point difference between two people is practically irrelevant.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other specific traits that have been noted in regards to birth order, so it’s worth talking about some general characteristics that we can evaluate in terms of birth order.
We can generalize most easily with first-borns. First-borns tend to be reliable, conscientious, very structured, cautious, and controlling because they often are driven to be “the best.”
We can look at some examples such as the fact that 21 out of the first 23 astronauts were first-born children, and eighty percent of Harvard students are first-borns.
Perhaps first-borns are more innately driven, but I think a lot of it has to do with how parents treat each child that arrives in a family. First-borns are usually handed more responsibility, expectations, and trust by their parents sooner than their younger siblings.
By the time a couple has a second or third child they are usually a lot more relaxed, and those later kids seem to be, too.
MOLLY: It seems to me that parents likely don’t have as much time to just focus one-on-one with a younger child, like they probably did with the first-born child.
This question came to us from a reader based in Los Angeles, California. She added that she has three children who are very different from each other in terms of behavior, personality, motivation, and more. She wonders how much birth order plays a role in shaping these characteristics and how much she can influence in order to create a positive outcome for her kids.
DR. RUTHERFORD: The first step in changing something is awareness of it, so she’s heading in the right direction. Once we recognize the commonality of behaviors, we, as parents, can consciously choose to reinforce the behaviors or not with our actions and responses.
Unlike first-borns, middle kids tend to be people-pleasers while also being somewhat rebellious. They thrive on relationships and they don’t like to be told what to do.
By contrast, last-born children are often more free-spirited, possibly because of the parents’ increasingly laissez-faire –hands-off– attitude towards parenting. Last-borns can be fun-loving, uncomplicated and outgoing attention seekers who might also be somewhat self-centered and manipulative.
When it comes to birth order, only children are considered first-borns forever. In fact, they’re called super first-borns. They’re often mature, conscientious, and diligently perfectionistic.
First-borns and only children are drawn toward leadership positions.
As to if a parent can influence these characteristics in their children, I would say yes, definitely. Research has shown that a gap of five or more years between children means that the second child is usually treated as a de-facto first-born. This means that we can level out the playing field to an extent by how we treat each child as an individual and what we expect from them.
MOLLY: What happens to birth order characteristics in a blended family where each spouse brings in children from a previous marriage?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Now things get a little more complicated.
MOLLY: What do you mean?
DR. RUTHERFORD: A child who is the first-born in a nuclear family and then becomes a younger sibling in a blended family when older step-siblings enter the picture will usually face a big adjustment. He still feels like a first-born but he may no longer be treated as such by the parental figures. It is something blended families should be aware of addressing fairly.
One thing birth order does not seem to affect is someone’s learning style. For parents, this means that birth order is insignificant in terms of what kind of education is best for a child. Parents have to look at each individual child and get some sort of understanding about how he or she learns.
While birth order can produce enduring characteristics, parents can still influence the development of their children the way parents have influenced their children for eons: by nurturing characteristics in their children and steering their personal growth through experiences and opportunities to learn.
Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford publish ConversationsWithMyMother.com, an online resource for offering practical parenting tips and psychological insight into raising kids. Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University, and the University of Denver.
© 2014 Molly Skyar