Family Dynamics

What's Your "Real" Birth Order?

What birth order are you really?

Posted Aug 14, 2011

Most of the time, when people talk about birth order they are, they think it's self evident, at least if you're a first or lastborn. Middleborns can create a bit more confusion...are they the exact middle child (2 of 3 or 3 of 5) or anyone who isn't a first or last child? In The Secret Power of Middle Children, we spend a chapter talking about the different factors that can influence how typical someone is for a middle child, but the same factors apply, in many ways, to other birth orders as well. Because when it comes down to it, birth order is a proxy for parental investment (whether that investment comes in the form of attention, affection, financial support, etc) and while many societies have tended to favor their firstborns, there are a number of factors that have an impact on how parents allocate their resources among their children.

Sex can make a difference. In some families and in some cultures, what matters is not being the firstborn but being the first boy. So regardless of whether the first boy in the family is actually born first, or second, or third, he may be the recipient of a larger share of parental attention and well as parental expectations (which can be hard and stressful work to live up to). Such a boy's personality/attitudes/behavior may be more firstborn typical than that of the birth position he is actually born into. Of course, there are also some cultural and social examples where being female results in greater parental investment, such as low caste Indian families (Mildred Dickemann, 1979) or Hungarian Gypsies (Bereczkei & Dunbar, 2002, 1997).

Age gaps, also referred to as birth intervals, can also have an impact on what Frank Sulloway refers to as functional birth order. Imagine a family with a firstborn boy. Four years later, a sister arrives. The little sister is a born performer, the apple of her parents' eyes, the baby of the family for ten years at which point another girl is born. This now middleborn is likely to retain many of the baby ofthe family traits as she was already 10 years old when the new baby came on the scene. Rather than a patient peacemaker middle, she's likely to be a center of attion somewhat dependent lastborn. Recognize her? 

Also, the disability or death of an older sibling, depending on the age at which it occurs may change the functional birth order of the other siblings. If there were certain expectations for the firstborn, to take over the family business, for example, as those expectations were not going to be met, the middle child make take over that abandoned or unfulfilled role of upholder of parental values and goals, becoming rather more firstborn-like in nature. Donald Trump, the fourth of five children, eldest brother Fred Jr had rebelled against involvement in the family business and died of alcoholism at the age of 43. The was an open role in the family early on and young Donald took it, developing an interesting mix of firstborn drive and middleborn negotiation skills.

And there are other factors too, including the age of the mother...but those are for a future post.