Birth Order: Its Influence on Our Behavior and Relationships
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If brothers and sisters are raised by the same parents, how do they end up so different?
How is it that one sibling grows up to be successful academically and professionally but with few friends, while another becomes the athlete with loads of friends? To the degree that one of the siblings is a responsible person, another will be attention-seeking or rebellious. One follows the ways of the parents and another looks outside the family for support.
Researchers have been interested in birth order for nearly a century now, but learned only within the past three or four decades about the influence of birth order on our behavior and the nature of relationships with our partners. First, let's take a closer look at the common characteristics of each place in the birth order.
Consider two parents, possibly newly married, who have their first child. Determined to be the best parents in the world, they dote on the child, give the child an abundance of attention, and try to show just how responsible they are. But the new parents are also uncertain, anxious and inconsistent — and to make up for this, they may be demanding, strict and overprotective. Research shows that firstborns talk and walk before children who are born later. As firstborns grow up, these precocious abilities remain — they are the ones who go on to succeed in the world. They get higher grades in school and have higher leadership and achievement traits. They are conscientious, organized, dependable, accommodating and persistent.
While some firstborns have a strong need for approval and grow up pleasing people and taking care of others (often being taken advantage of in the process), other firstborns are high achievers, hard-driving and ruthless. One common characteristic of many firstborns is that they tend to be perfectionists. They strive for unrealistic goals, don’t deal well with criticism, are devastated by failure, are frequently pessimistic, and take on so many responsibilities that things can get out of control.
The Middle Child (or SecondBorn)
As each child is born, the disciplinary rules of the family relax, as well as the expectations and pressure put on those born later. Middle children may have many contradictory characteristics, but one common thread seems to hold true: Their personalities are usually the opposite of the firstborn’s. If the firstborn is a loner, the next born will have numerous friends. If the firstborn is ambitious, the secondborn may be more laid-back. The secondborn, after all, has to carve out his or her own distinct identity, and the firstborn has already made a claim on adult-oriented and ambitious traits.
It is common for the middle child to feel squeezed out, with the older and younger children getting more attention — so they turn to the world outside of the family, to their friends. Secondborns or middle children are often sociable and become good mediators. They learn the art of negotiation and compromise. They are generally free-spirited, independent and sometimes rebellious. Because they don’t get as much attention, they learn not to reveal as much about their thoughts and emotions as others do. And since they didn’t stand out in the family as much while growing up, they place great value on loyalty — they are the likeliest to remain monogamous in their relationships.
By the time the last child is born, the parents often let the child’s development proceed with more of a hands-off approach. Frequently the older brothers and sisters involve themselves in the child-rearing process, which means that the lastborn gets an abundance of attention and is often the target of jokes. There is some inclination as well to let the last child remain a child — after all, once the lastborn grows up, the parents have to come to terms with new roles and definitions within their own relationship, a situation they may prefer to avoid.
Last children grow up with ambivalence, lauded with attention one minute and joked about the next. They are accused of being spoiled, the ones who get everything the other siblings never had. This results in some impetuous behaviors and a tendency to want things immediately. They can become “clowns,” seeking attention with no real worries about the consequences. The lastborn child is often described as sociable, charming, loving and open, but also as temperamental, irresponsible and self-centered.
Only children may carry the characteristics of both firstborns and lastborns. They are referred to as “lonely onlies” because, while they receive substantial attention from their parents, they frequently find themselves with fewer social skills for dealing with their peers. Because they identify so closely with the values of their parents, they relate better as they grow up with people far older or younger.
Think of the characteristics of the firstborn and then magnify them. Their lives are often highly structured during childhood so they may harbor private resentment about having to grow up as little adults with no real childhood. Only children grow up with a great deal of recognition from their parents and tend to be responsible, ambitious and perfectionistic, but they also set high standards for themselves and others, so they may be perceived as critical or even controlling.
Exceptions to the rule
The world of the firstborn child differs markedly from that of the secondborn, and if a third comes along, he or she will carve out territory within the family system that differs from the first two. This is not to say that these patterns are carved in stone — there are always exceptions to the rules. For example, if the first two children are born close together and the third child comes along much later, the lastborn may have characteristics resembling the firstborn.
The gender of the children and physical differences can also make for deviations from the general patterns, as can the birth order of the parents and the nature of the relationship between the parents. And, of course, two families that come together through the remarriage of the parents (the blended family) can create all sorts of interesting combinations.
MAKING YOUR BIRTH ORDER WORK FOR YOU
Birth order has a significant influence on our behavior in adulthood. The tactics we developed in childhood to deal with our parents and siblings remain with us and can cause conflicts in our other relationships, often in ways we barely recognize.
In coaching, one of the major goals is to understand how our development has affected our personalities as adults and see how these influences have slanted our ways of dealing with other people. Despite the heavy impact birth order has on us, we can learn to change some of these behaviors — and the first step in this process is awareness, which leads to understanding, which in turn can lead to intentional change. And if change is not indicated, then we can at least learn to use our special attributes to our best advantage.
Here are some strategies to help make your birth order work for you:
- You can have high standards and expectations without being a perfectionist. Try loosening up a bit, and don’t expect that others should adhere to the same standards that you set for yourself.
- Learn to set good boundaries for yourself when others expect you to do things. You don’t have to be all things to all people. Learn to say “no.”
- Set aside some time for yourself. Play and enjoy life. Cultivate the part of yourself that experiences life fully.
- When people try to influence you to take risks, stick with your first inclination — which is probably to be cautious. Take pride in your ability to be responsible.
- Learn to laugh at yourself. Sometimes you’ll be wrong — just admit it.
- You may find that you compare yourself with other people much of the time. Just rejoice in being yourself. Like yourself for who you are and what you have in life.
- While you may not have talked much about yourself growing up, there is never a better time than now to begin. Explore feeling comfortable in sharing your thoughts and feelings with other people.
- While you may value your freedom and independence more than most, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never be successful. Find ways to express your freedom responsibly in your work and relationships.
- You don’t have to be a friend to everyone. Select a few people who deserve your time and true friendship. When everyone is a friend, nobody is a true friend.
- Rather than expecting others to take charge or blaming other people when things go wrong, explore how it feels to accept complete responsibility for things yourself, not only with major decisions but with the smaller chores of daily living.
- While you may love to be the focus of attention, try sharing center stage with other people. Try listening to other people to benefit from their point of view.
- Evaluate your work. If you work alone or in an isolated job, remember that you are probably not utilizing one of your greatest strengths, which is your ability to work well with other people.
- Your ability to be entertaining and influential around others is a wonderful asset — but learn to use it for the benefit of other people, not just for your own gratification.
Birth Order and Relationships
How does all of this affect our choice of a partner? Generally, the best bet when deciding on a partner is to choose someone with a birth order unlike our own so that we can benefit from the strengths of someone who has learned a different set of strategies for dealing with life. While we may initially be attracted to someone with our own characteristics, true adaptive strength over the long run lies in having a partner who can complement our own dispositions. (There are, however, many exceptions to this rule, and some of the best relationships can occur between partners of the same birth order.)
When we have a partner with the same place in their siblings' birth order, we often experience frustration that this person does not have attributes we ourselves lack. Many people express aggravation toward a partner, complaining, “Why can’t John (or Mary) be more responsible (or outgoing ... or emotionally open)?” Ironically, these are likely the same qualities lacking in the one doing the complaining. At a certain level, we often look to our partner to make up for the things we don’t do well, so we resort to the scheme of trying to change our partner. A word to the wise: You cannot change another person. Your time is much better spent focusing on changing yourself.
With the help of a coach, you can change many things about yourself and your behavior, and your partner may decide voluntarily to do the same. If you have a partner with complementary attributes, there will be less need for him or her to change within your relationship. You can value each other for your own special qualities, and this leads to a strong and healthy bond.
Two firstborns or two only children may find themselves in a volatile and competitive relationship, especially when both have tendencies to be perfectionists. They hold high standards for themselves and may find it difficult to back down. Firstborns, unlike secondborns, often failed to learn the art of compromise.
While two middle children in a relationship may be good mediators, seemingly a wonderful skill to bring to a partnership, they may avoid talking through the problems that come up in any relationship. Middle children want things to be smooth and are generally loyal to a fault. They learned how to avoid conflict growing up, which meant keeping things to themselves. Their relationships, therefore, may be characterized by a lack of communication.
Two lastborns together can make for a wonderfully playful relationship, but eventually each partner may look to the other to take control of things — and nobody wants to take the control. Lastborns grew up with older siblings who took responsibility for decisions and chores, so they may still expect in adulthood that someone else will take care of things. Lastborn partners sometimes have money problems.
So, which birth order makes the ideal partner? It depends on you. There are no hard and fast rules. Some people say that a firstborn with a lastborn provides for a good mixture of responsibility and playfulness. Others say that a firstborn or only child with few friends can benefit from a relationship with a socially oriented middle child. Tempered by a good dose of common sense, the answer is in your heart.