Birth-order lottery: firstborn favourites, middle-child syndrome and septugenarian babies
Are eldest children always astronauts? Are second children rebellious? A psychologist youngest child investigates
Where do you come in the family? Many of us have great difficulty offloading an expectation within the family based on our chronological status, and this remains over a lifetime. Photograph: Thinkstock
A few years ago, I had the privilege of being a guest on the incomparable Gerry Ryan Show on 2FM. Our topic was birth order and the way it influences how we grow up. A woman came on the line to complain bitterly that, because she was the youngest in a large family, no one would take her seriously. She protested that her views were always ignored or laughed off. “And how old are you, pet?” inquired Ryan. “I’m 72,” was the reply.
We both had trouble keeping a straight face but, on reflection, the woman’s experience is not unusual. Many of us have great difficulty offloading an expectation within the family based on our chronological status, and this remains over a lifetime.
Psychologists have argued for years about the influence of birth order on personality. My own view is that birth order has an undoubted influence, but there are many other factors that contribute to the unique individuals each of us grows into.
Where there is a gap of more than four years, the influence of birth order is less marked because the rivalry between siblings is less intense.
If a male follows a female in the birth order or vice versa, the rivalry is also less likely to have as great an influence. But there are very significant indicators of the influence of birth order.
More than half of US presidents were first or only children. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are firstborns. Virtually every astronaut who has gone into space is a firstborn. And most Nobel prizewinners were firstborns. So what is it that makes birth order have such an influence?
What often happens is that if the younger sibling begins to gain supremacy over the older one in any given activity, the older sibling will give it up. So they don’t compete at the same activity. A not-unusual scenario would be where the oldest becomes more academic, while the second child is more sporty.
The firstborn identifies more with their parents, achieves higher academic grades, is more conservative and is more likely to end up in professions such as law, accountancy, IT or banking. They are not as sociable as their younger counterparts.
Only children are uber-firstborns. Famous firstborns include Shakespeare, Einstein, Churchill, Saddam Hussein and Jesse Jackson. Leonardo da Vinci and Tiger Woods were only children.
Second-born children must accommodate the fact that there is always someone ahead of them. As such, they seek companionship outside the family and are much more relaxed and sociable as a result. They are more likely to try different activities and it is postulated that second children tend to be better socially adjusted than firstborns. They have more friends and are generally considered to be happier.
Second-borns are more likely to be represented in the caring professions. Famous secondborns include Bill Gates, Madonna and Cindy Crawford.
Resentful middle child
As teenagers, they either choose to wallow in their resentment and can become delinquent (ie running with the pack) or decide to overcome the hand life has dealt them and aim to outdo all the other siblings. They may then become peacemakers. (John F Kennedy was a middle child.)
Middles are usually our entrepreneurs, retailers, advertisers and fashion designers. Famous middle children include Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump, Stella McCartney, Michelle Pfeiffer and Henry VIII.
The youngest children are known as the charming rebels. They crave the limelight. Most likely referred to as the “baby” in the family, they are more talkative but lapse into cuteness or helplessness too readily.
They are most likely to be spoiled and are less subject to strict parental rules. The parents are probably too tired by the time they come along to enforce previously applied standards. Hence the perception of the youngest not being taken too seriously.
Youngest borns are car salesmen, clowns, actors and, yes, psychologists. We have to figure out our place in the world somehow. Famous youngest family members include Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Ronald Reagan, Voltaire, Joan of Arc, Charlie Chaplin, Hugh Grant, Johnny Depp and Gandhi.
There are theories about which combination of birth order makes the best or most enduring marriage.
One theory has it that hooking up with a person as far from your own birth order as possible has the best chance of a successful marriage and that two first or only children will struggle in the marriage stakes. As perfectionists, they are much more likely to fight over the slightest of details.
Size of family and socioeconomic circumstances can diminish the influence of birth order among other factors. However, at the very least, musing about birth order makes for interesting conversation.
In reality, I would not underestimate its influence.
Dr Mark Harrold is a clinical psychologist. drmarkharrold.com