Oldest, Second, Youngest, or Only? The Importance of Birth Order in the Family Structure

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By Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

Some people may believe that children who were born to the same family began life the same way, share the exact same background, and are predisposed by their shared beginnings to be similarly well-balanced (or its opposite). Alfred Adler, like his colleagues Freud and Jung, believed that Birth Order was crucial in the establishment of the personality and that people who were, say, first-born children shared certain characteristics depending on how they were raised.

Before reading further, please note how many times I use the words “may” and “might” in this blog entry. I am writing about this simply to open a discussion with you about the possibility that birth order may have been a factor in your development and that it may help you to understand your children.

First
Firstborn children are often eagerly awaited by parents who have never even seen a baby up close. Their parents may overprotect them, believing them to be in immediate, even constant, danger. The parents may also have tremendous expectations of them and put enormous pressure on them to succeed at all costs. Parents may attempt to “teach” them to crawl. If they are one day “late” walking or talking, specialists may be called in. Firstborn children might be pampered. If they are raised with love, structure, and encouragement, they can often be extraordinarily confident leaders capable of seeing a corporation or a country through a crisis. If they become discouraged or lose confidence through parental over-expectation or pampering, they may falter, lose ground, and stop trying. Oldest children frequently dream of falling. This is because they fear falling from grace. For them, there is no place to go but down.

Second
When a younger sibling is born, parents must take care to see that the firstborn child does not feel “dethroned” (Adler’s term) by the newcomer. In the eyes of the firstborn child, suddenly, there is this adorable and adored newcomer who is competing successfully for the attention of the parents. When firstborns feel dethroned or displaced by the baby, sibling rivalry can become long-lasting, and the siblings might never be close. The dethroned firstborn child may become pessimistic and over-value the past — the time when he or she was the apple of the parental eye. They may grow up focused on The Good Old Days. The second child may then feel threatened by and fearful of the jealous first and not achieve his full potential.

The second-born child arrives, literally and symbolically, in a secondary position in the sibling hierarchy. There is this “person” ahead of him or her who is getting all the glory and who is bigger, more competent, more highly considered, and has more privileges than he or she will ever have. Second children may enter a race that they will run forever. Even after leaving the family of origin, they may always seek out a “pacemaker” against whom to measure themselves. Second children often dream of running races or chasing cars or trains. Even at the top of their field, they may look for someone higher to compete with; and if they don’t find someone, they may feel at a loss.

When both children are raised with love and encouragement, the older child may help and support the younger, in which case the second child may love and look up to the older sibling while taking great joy in his or her own accomplishments. The lesson is simple: favoritism is not appropriate. Value each child as an individual, and show them that you do.

If second children are not guided well, they may always feel dispossessed, inferior, and “less than” others. Well-raised, the second child can be the more successful child. While the older sibling takes the “heat” and the continuing pressure of parental expectations, the second child feels free to try and try again until success is achieved. Second children can experience the time and space necessary to appear more talented and successful than firstborns. They often have more fun. They can also resent authority if the firstborn has been bossy or domineering with them.

Other younger children may share the second child’s characteristics to a greater or lesser extent. It should be noted that Adler did not discuss middle children separately but included them in the general category of second children. In my opinion, middle children, depending on how they are raised, have issues and attributes that are worth examining; and they belong in a category of their own. I am not saying this to criticize Adler. I am only suggesting that the fourth out of six children may have issues that the second-born child never even dreamed of.

Youngest
The youngest child is the baby and may be adored by one and all. Even the firstborn child who felt dethroned by the second-born may love and spoil the last-born member of the family. In a family that is under stress, however, people may be too busy trying to cope to pay sufficient attention to this last child. In the best case scenario, the baby will never be dethroned. Although last-born children may be pampered, they are also stimulated by so many older pacemakers. Youngest children may receive the encouragement of a whole family, and they may overtake all of the older siblings to become the happiest people and the highest achievers of them all.

Only
Some firstborn children will be only children. Only children will be the firstborn child for the rest of their lives and may share many of the characteristics ascribed by Adler to the firstborn. Only children can be confident, enthusiastic, and joyous achievers. Adler wrote that the only child’s potential issue given the lack of siblings is the possibility of a rivalry with the father. Mothers with only one child can be overly protective and pamper this child who might then develop what Adler called a “mother complex”. The child might seek to establish with the mother a relationship that excludes the father. The only child may also want to be the center of attention all the time and, when that does not happen, become discouraged.

Any birth position is a wonderful position with special advantages if parents love and honor each child.

Wait!!! What About Twins and Other Multiple Births?
Adler wrote surprisingly little about twins. I could write an entire book about twins: how they relate to their shared birth order in a family, the frequent difference in personality between the firstborn and second-born twin, and the issues that can arise if they are treated as though they were the same. By the way, did you know that twins do not have exactly the same horoscope?

The Importance of Birth Order
Birth Order is fascinating. There are many books and websites devoted to Birth Order if you are interested, even some that include the birth order of famous people. Above all, birth order is one lens through which to view the family and the individual’s place in it. Each time we look at something from a new perspective, our understanding of it is enriched.

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