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Understanding Birth Order
Part I: An Overview

by Dr. Susan S. Bartell

The topic of birth order seems to generate more questions than just about any other issue in families with more than one child. Although there is great interest in the way birth order impacts on children, it continues to be a confusing area for many people. I will therefore be writing a series of articles for Having Another Baby on this topic. This, the first in the series, presents an overview of birth order concerns and questions. In the following months, articles will appear, discussing each birth order position in detail, including how to understand specific birth order dynamics and difficulties.

What exactly is Birth Order?

Many people have heard the term "birth order" without understanding fully what it means, so let's start with a basic definition. Birth order refers to the position in the family that a child occupies at the time he or she is born. A child can be the oldest, the middle, the youngest or anywhere in between. Of course, the possibilities are endless, but in general, the most frequently studied birth positions are oldest, middle and youngest. These are the most common because a great percentage of parents have two or three children. This does not mean that being an only child, or being from a larger family doesn't matter, of course it does! In fact, interestingly, many first-born children have similar personalities to only children (probably because they are both 'only' for a time.) Furthermore, youngest children often have predictable personality traits no matter how many older siblings they have. However, it is true that in much larger families, birth order issues can become more complex and difficult to understand.

Why are my children so different?

"I don't understand how my children can be so different when they're being raised in exactly the same way, by the same parents!" If this sounds like a familiar phrase, you're not alone. It is difficult to understand how children in the same home, with the same parents and having generally the same life-experiences can be so different. However, there are other factors that impact on a child's personality. All children are born with a genetically predetermined temperament. Having the same parents does not guarantee similar temperaments among siblings. Whether a child is quiet, outgoing, creative, shy, moody, active or fearful is rooted in the child's temperament and this will effect the way he or she interacts with other people. Temperament will also impact on the way a child copes with stressful situations or adversity. But although temperament is "built in", it is definitely affected by life experiences, including family, friends and other positive and negative life events. It is therefore important not to "assign" roles or expectations to a child based upon very early personality traits. For example, a mom may experience a baby as "difficult", but if she assigns this trait to the child for the rest of his life, he may become a difficult child because he's heard himself called that so often, rather than because it's truly his personality.

So where does Birth Order fit in?

Birth order is one of the important life experiences that helps to mold a child's personality. There are two reasons for this. First, although parents think they treat their children in exactly the same way, they actually have different expectations for them, reactions to them and interactions with them, depending on the child's birth position. Second, children have differing views of themselves depending upon when they were born and who comes before and/or after them. In fact, the ways in which a child relates to parents and siblings (and also to other significant caretakers) and the way these people relate to the child are developed starting at the very beginning of a child's life. These patterns of relating become the blueprint for all future interactions the child has with people inside and outside the family. It is therefore crucial that parents not only understand the emotional and behavioral patterns related to birth order, but that they learn how to manage their children accordingly in supportive and nurturing ways.

What is your birth position?

This may come as a surprise, but parents often treat their children differently depending upon their own birth position in their childhood family. Kathy, for example was the oldest child in her family and because her mother worked she always felt responsible for her three younger sisters. She remembered resenting the burden, so now, as a mother Kathy adamantly refuses to give her oldest daughter any responsibility for anything, even if Annie wants it. Margaret, on the other hand, the youngest in her family of origin, loved being "babied" by her parents and grandparents. But she remembers hating it when her siblings called her a spoiled brat and she felt uncomfortable that they resented her favored position. Margaret doesn't want Brian, her youngest, labeled a brat so she tries to never show him favoritism. She admits that sometimes she's actually too hard on him because she doesn't want him or his brother and sister to feel that he gets special treatment because he's the youngest. These stories help illustrate that it is important to become aware of the way your birth position may affect the way you parent your children. Whether you felt comfortable, jealous, resentful or happy with the way you were treated by your parents and siblings, it will impact on how you treat each of your children. If your older brother bullied you, you may do your best to protect your youngest from bullying, even if perhaps he instigates it. If you were the favored child you may unwittingly favor your child in the same birth position.

How are children affected?

If you reflect upon the impact that your childhood family has on your interactions with your own children, you will open the door to understanding your current family. You will see that your children's responses to you and to each other are at least in part, based upon how they feel about their place in the family and the way they are treated by their parents and by each other. This is because children sense that their parents treat them differently from one another, even if it's subtle. If a child feels favored because she's the youngest she may behave less respectfully to parents and siblings, knowing there will be no serious consequences. If an oldest child feels more frequently blamed than other children in the family, he may begin to lie in order to avoid trouble or try and pass the blame on to a sibling. If a child feels that all the attention is now given to a younger sibling, she may behave badly in order to be noticed. If a child believes that a sibling is favored, he may become jealous, hostile and resentful towards that sibling. But if a child feels secure, safe and loved in the family, no matter what his or her birth position, then rivalry, anger and acting out will be minimal, transient and easily managed by conscientious parents.

To be continued.

You now have a better understanding of the general birth order issues that can impact on children, regardless of their birth position. But depending upon the child's actual position in the order of the family, a variety of expected personality and behavioral traits may emerge. In the following months, we will take a look at the different birth order positions to try and further understand the ways in which we can meet the psychological and emotional needs of our children.

Read more articles:
Dad's Changing Role
by Dr. Susan S. Bartell

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