Monday, November 05, 2007

Birth Order Myths and Maybe-Truths

Since the days of Cain and Abel, birth order has fascinated us and formed who we are and perhaps what career we choose, as well as our relationships with siblings, our spouse, and with our friends. Along with the genes and personality traits that our parents pass along, the order in which they conceived and popped us out into this world helps to make us who we are.

There are variables, however, to the theories that firstborns are usually more responsible, smarter and strive to please more than second-or-third borns. Or that middle children have less of a clear-cut role in the family, or even that the youngest expects others to make decisions for him and takes on less responsibility. Often the sex of the child as well as the dynamics in blended, single or divorced families throw a wrench into the accepted birth order suppositions.

I am the eldest of two and so as the first-born of course I am smarter and more responsible than my younger brother (good thing he lives in Maryland and never reads this column; I am obviously kidding about being superior). However, according to a Dr. Spock website, the oldest are “typically responsive to the parents’ expectations” and that was certainly a truism growing up. The second-born, or youngest, says the site, is “easygoing… charming and manipulative.” That’s accurate of my brother. While he was rebelling, I felt a strong need to fulfill my mom and dad’s hopes for me as a diversion to his crazy antics of adolescence.

My own four children are a bit all over the map in terms of the birth order traits.

Blake, the first-born, enlisted in the Marines right out of New Canaan High, so clearly he took on a leadership role in life as well as in the family. He was always the peace-keeper and protector growing up and still is. Another website states that the first-born may respond to the birth of the second child by feeling unloved and neglected. I know I certainly felt that way and was constantly taunting my brother as being dropped on the door-step instead of being born to our mother, and I enjoyed trying to figure out ways to “get rid of him” as a child. Blake reacted to Kenny’s birth by chucking a Matchbox car at the baby’s face, resulting in a butterfly stitch to the forehead. There were other such incidents until each reached their teens; they are now the best of friends.

Kenny has the distinction of having been the youngest for eight years until I remarried and had his sister, Janet. Her birth catapulted him to the position of the middle child, a rank that’s often described as discouraged, becoming the “problem child.” Acting out for the middle kid is a way to garner back his or her parents’ attention. Spot on for Kenny. And Janet – who not only shares Kenny’s status as middle child, but also shares Kenny’s birth date – has revealed some of those tendencies as well, though not as strongly as her brother.

Janet, like Kenny, had/has a double place in the hierarchy of my children in that she is the oldest of the Evans’ kids, so she shares many first-born traits, too, which can counteract the characteristics of the typical middle child. Being the only girl throws in a whole different set of actions (and hormonal reactions) to the sibling mix. Her older brothers at first protected and coddled her, then felt she was a royal pain, and now for the most part have reverted back to their original nurturing ways. How we, her parents, deal with her is also a direct correlation to her birth order(s), sex, and personality traits of additionally being a part of a family with two older half-siblings. I spoil her the most by far.

“Baby” Jack really doesn’t exhibit the typical traits of the youngest in the family, but he has experienced the inevitable parental responses to being the last child born. While Blake’s baby book is filled to the brim with duly-noted milestones and dozens of photos, I couldn’t even begin to tell you where Jack’s is located in the attic (or is it the basement?), and it merely notes his size and weight and includes those inked newborn feet the hospital produces. I can recite the time of birth, birth weight and length of Blake, Kenny and Janet, but draw a blank on Jack’s vital newborn statistics. I don’t recall what his first word was and almost always forget to bring my camera to school events or to the field of play! His sibling’s landmarks are memorialized and memorized properly. The birth order experts postulate that the baby of the family usually feels smallest and weakest and is unable to take on responsibilities, but nothing could be farther than the truth for my youngest guy. In fact one quote reveals that: “unburdened by the high expectations that many parents have for their eldest children many youngest experience greater success than their siblings or they will make their mark in life in a very individualistic way.” That’s my baby!

A competitive will, a free spirit, a sense of superiority, a need to be babied, all of these things can – and often are – explained by birth order. So many forces collide to shape our personalities and our approach to life, and it’s spellbinding to watch it all in the faces of our children.

“Location, location, location.” It’s not just a real estate mantra, is it?

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