Birth Order: What It Means for Your Kids and You

Simplistic or Significant?
Do these characteristics match with the members of your family?

By Janet Strassman Perlmutter

Who among us hasn't wondered how our children, who we're raising almost identically to one another, could be turning out so dramatically different? How, in fact, did we turn out to be so different from our own brothers or sisters?It's in the genes, say some, the "nature" part of the nature/nurture equation.

It's essentially what people mean when they say about their kids, "They just came out of the womb that way.

However, few of us stop there, because few people think personality is primarily predetermined at birth. But how much of our children's – or even our own – personalities are influenced by birth order?

That question has been around so long you'd think the experts would have an answer by now. In fact, they have lots of answers – along with opinions that range from being subtly different to polar opposites.

Typical Traits

The idea that being the eldest, middle or youngest child comes with some typical personality traits has been around since the 1920s, when Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler began stressing the importance of birth order on personality and character.

Adler believed that humans have a strong need to be accepted and valued, and that family is the first social group in which we strive for this sense of belonging.

His theory, and the views of several birth order experts since, boils down to this: Children in any given family each strive for their parents' love, attention and resources. The bigger the family, the harder it is to do this. And depending on where a child falls in the family, he or she responds differently.

The Eldest Child

Firstborn children don't have to work very hard for their parents' attention and resources. Adler proponent Jack Agati, a birth-order expert, family counselor and public speaker, offers the example of the well-organized photo albums documenting every stretch, splash or stroll in the early life of many firstborns. Firstborns learn that all it takes to gain parent approval is to follow Mom's or Dad's wishes, according to Adler's theory. And some say eldest children maintain this approach throughout their lives, gaining status by working hard, not making waves – in a nutshell, the good kid who wants to do the right thing, sometimes to the point of perfectionism.

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