Are you the first born child in your family? The mysterious middle child? The entertaining baby of the family? A Lonely Only? Or perhaps the ultimate in birth order: The First Born Son?
Years ago, my mom sent me a book about birth order. The section about three daughters and then a son exactly mirrored our family dynamic. Recently, while perusing Kindle books, I found a new version of the Kevin Leman book, The Birth Order Book.
Apparently, we form our personalities by the time we’re six years old and there’s not much we can do about it. It’s not as cut and dry as “if you’re the first born, you’re a leader” or “if you’re a middle child, you’re the black sheep.” There are other dynamics, which Leman calls variables, that affect personality, regardless of birth order.
For example, my parents had three daughters and then a son. Because my brother is the first-born son/only son, he exhibits personality traits of a first-born child. My second oldest sister is the classic middle child, because she is between my sister and me. She takes a laid-back approach to life. I’m the third daughter of parents who wanted a son, so I might have youngest-child traits or I might have middle-child traits. A middle child can be friendly and outgoing, like my sister, or an introverted book worm, like me. Because I am the last daughter, I was always the baby girl (“Little Karla”), but when anything went wrong with my brother and I, I was often told I “should know better” because I’m older. Contradictions like that, as well as being constantly reminded that you were the third daughter born to parents who wanted a son, can really mess you up.
Dr. Leman describes my family exactly: “This family has two last borns, a last-born boy and a last-born girl. This almost always guarantees friction between the two last borns. It is very common for alliances to form. The way this usually happens in this particular sequence is that the oldest girl forms an alliance with the youngest girl, and the second-oldest girl forms an alliance with the boy.”
Dr. Leman describes “the setup” as a particular skill of the last born that involves bugging an older sibling until he or she lashes out in anger; then the baby of the family runs screaming to Mommy for protection. Anyone who is not the youngest of their siblings is all too familiar with “the setup.” My brother was quite skilled at this. He would pick and pick and pick and pick until I could finally no longer stand it, and then I’d get into trouble because “I should know better.” I eventually learned that if I ignored him, he would get bored and leave me alone.
My husband is the baby of his family. He exhibits classic baby-of-the-family traits (including picking at me until I explode), but also there are several years between his older brother and him. Having five or more years between sons can make the younger son exhibit some of the traits of a first-born child. In his case, he is obsessed with doing everything “right”; he can plan a project for days and weeks without ever actually following through for fear of not doing it “right.” Probably because he’s a baby/first-born mix, some things he’s very picky and precise about and other things he couldn’t care less about.
We have two sons. My oldest son is the same as his dad as far as procrastinating because he doesn’t think he can do something the right way. He started out as a classic first born: very much into knowing and following the rules, an A student, took advanced placement classes in high school, and started college with enough credits to be a sophomore. But once confronted with how much harder college is than high school, he just gave up. He made steadily declining grades and then just stopped going to classes, got an “administrative failure,” and was put on suspension. He moved back home and hasn’t moved on yet. Five years later, he’s still unemployed, and doesn’t have many opportunities to get employed without a college education.
My youngest son is a classic baby of the family: active, entertaining, likes to have lots of friends, and likes attention. But there are four and half years between him and his brother, so he exhibits some first-born/only traits as far as ambition, achievement, wanting to do things perfectly, and so on.
Knowing how birth order affects personality and behavior can help us to understand each other, to work around each of our little quirks. Dr. Leman offers tips for parenting first borns, middle borns, last borns, and everything in between, including blended families with step children. He, a trained counselor and parenting advisor, also tells stories of when he screwed up.
I’m not sure how knowing this helps just yet, though, and it’s too late for my dearly departed parents. My own kids are grown, but I’ll still keep reading to see where I went wrong. Maybe it’s not too late for you.