If you’re the DJ Tanner or Marsha Brady of the family, chances are you’re the responsible leader of the pack. But if you identify with Stephanie Tanner or Jan Brady and assume the role of the middle child, you likely get lost in the shuffle and keep the peace. Then, there are the Michelle Tanners of the world (AKA the baby of the clan) who are the outgoing charmers (“You got it, dude!”). These assumptions are all based on the birth order theory that says the order in which you were born dictates your personality traits. Is there any truth to it? Could it be the answer to why siblings are so different? I sought out Michele Goldman, a psychologist and advisor for Hope for Depression Research Foundation, to get the breakdown of the birth order theory, what it says about each sibling, and why some people may not fit its framework.
What is the birth order theory?
Developed in the 1900s by psychotherapist Alfred Adler, birth order theory suggests that the sequence in which a child is born within their family—from first born to the youngest and every position in between—shapes their thoughts and behaviors. For example, the firstborn typically portrays the characteristics of being an achiever and reliable. Goldman made an important distinction between chronological and psychological birth order: “Chronological birth order is the literal order in which siblings are born,” she conveyed. “Psychological birth order is the birth order that someone might encompass, even if they were not born in that placement within the family.”
According to Adler’s theory, children are not born with inherent qualities, but rather their family environments and dynamics play a role in influencing individual psychology during their formative years. While every family is different, Adler believed there were many similarities between the interactions of parents and children as well as between siblings. So does birth order really impact personality? The short answer is it’s up for debate. Some studies have shown that Adler was onto something when it comes to the attributes of first children, but more research is needed to get the full picture. Ahead, what the birth order theory says about your family standing.
The breakdown of each birth order
According to the birth order theory, the oldest child holds a highly advantageous position because they are used to being the sole recipient of attention for a period of time–therefore, first children may struggle when needing to share attention once siblings are born. The firstborn will often have a great amount of responsibility once younger siblings come into the picture. They might face stricter parenting and higher expectations, which typically leads to strong leadership and high-achieving qualities.
“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” Jan Brady’s famous cry says it all. If you fit the middle-child trope, you oftentimes will feel left out or unimportant. Middles are often skilled at carving out a place for themselves and they might even be creative in how to be seen within the family unit. While they are rather skilled at compromising, the middle child can also be competitive when overshadowed by an older sibling and sometimes unruly or rebellious. Neither overwhelmed with great responsibility (like firsts) nor overindulged (like the youngest), middle children most likely develop into successful adults.
It’s no surprise that the attention-seeking, can-do-no-wrong baby of the family tends to be overindulged by all in the family. What the youngest does in response to being overindulged impacts how they move through the world. Some youngest children will believe they are to be taken care of and may lack the internal drive to excel and the confidence to manage tasks successfully. However, other youngest children may appreciate being taken care of and want to take care of others, becoming respected as the “go-to” in the family.
Because the only child tends to be more familiar with adults than with other children, even if highly socialized with peers, they may be more rigid. Only children can be both highly successful and dependent upon their parents, as their parents are solely focused on the their success and achievement. Prone to be stubborn because they’re not used to being flexible or negotiating with others, the only child is also independent, able to fill their time with productive outlets, and intelligent.
Why you may not fit the birth order theory
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule where the birth order patterns don’t necessarily hold true. Goldman cited the most common reasons:
Large age gap between the children
Adler considered a large age gap to be three years, but most researchers now define it as five or more years, which was influenced by siblings being in different schools after five years. “In US schooling systems, after 5th grade, one sibling will go to middle school while the younger child is left behind in elementary, thus leading ‘separate’ lives,” Goldman explained. “If we have a five or more years difference, the child might be third in chronological birth order but becomes a psychological firstborn because the other two siblings are much older.” In other words, the child may exhibit firstborn tendencies even though they came third in line because of the large age gap.
Health of a child
A child with any health obstacles, no matter where they fall in birth order, can affect the psychological birth order position of their sibling(s). “If an oldest child is frequently ill or has a chronic condition (either physical or mental health), they might become the psychological ‘baby’ of the family because the focus is always on nurturing them and caring for them,” Goldman clarified. “This shifts attention off of the chronological baby, and the baby will take on another birth order position.”
To put it simply, Goldman stated that twins complicate birth order, and how birth order is impacted is dependent on whether the twins are the only children in the family or have other siblings. “Twins will typically not be raised according to chronological birth order, especially if they are only a few minutes apart, but psychological birth order might still form over time,” Goldman clarified.
Beliefs about gender
The engrained beliefs about gender by both the culture and other family members can also affect the birth order theory. “Even if a female is the oldest, a male child might be treated as a firstborn because of the cultural emphasis on males,” Goldman described. “This also might be seen in a family of five boys and the youngest is a girl; that girl might be treated as a stereotypical baby or as a psychological firstborn.”
When a family structure is affected by remarriage, psychological birth order will likely change, especially when the children are in their formative years. Goldman gave an example: “[When] a chronological oldest who has a well-formed personality in the family is blended with step-siblings where they now have someone older than them, this can influence their perceived psychological birth order and influence how they feel about themselves and others.” In the same vein, the two firstborns in the newly-formed family will search for their “place” and may compete to keep their firstborn standing.