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Your Family Voyage: Birth Order

SOURCE:  Excerpted from the book by P. Roger Hillerstrom/Your Family Voyage

The Value of When – Birth Order.  The timing of your entrance into your family has a profound impact on who you become.  This is the underlying assumption of the study of sibling position or birth order.

The study of sibling position revolves around the fact that families change as they grow.  The family responds to each child differently, depending on the family’s stage of development.  Since each child is treated uniquely in the context of the whole family system, the relationship between the child and the family as a whole develops uniquely.

Your birth order impacts virtually every area of your life:  career decisions, choice of spouse, how you respond to your children, what motivates or frustrates you, and how you spend your leisure time.

As a family grows, the number of relationships and possible interactions within the system changes dramatically.  For example, before the arrival of children the marriage relationship involves three interacting units – two individual “I’s” and one couple “we” relationship, or interaction.  When the first child is born, the number of units increases to seven – three individuals, three couples and one triangle.  With the addition of child number two, there are four individuals, six couples, four triangles, and a quadrangle, for a total of fifteen units.  By the time there is a fourth child, the number of interactions exceeds fifty.

Each child is born into a family situation different from that of the preceding sibling.  The family changes in many other ways as each child is added.  Mom and Dad have changed as parents.  They have modified their expectations, added skills, and increased or decreased tolerances.  The number of formal and informal roles within the family has increased, social expectations have changed, and financial needs (and possibly income) are different.

The Firstborn.  Most firstborn kids have a fairly tough time of it.  Being new to their responsibility, parents tend to have high expectations.  By the time children number two and number three come along, Mom and Dad have faced a little reality, and child number one has taken the edge off of their idealism.  Nevertheless, since everything child number one does is a “first” for the parents, their expectations for him or her tend to remain fairly high.

Firstborns often develop into a type of “assistant parent.”  Given the responsibility of being an example to the younger children, most firstborns fall into a pattern of making decisions, giving orders, teaching, protecting and correcting behavior.  They are leaders.  Oldest siblings tend to have fairly high expectations for themselves and are frequently self-critical.

Firstborns tend to develop two sets of personality traits, being either compliant and responsible or independent, assertive, and strong willed.  Compliant and responsible firstborns may become Mom and Dad’s “appendage”, having clear authority over younger siblings and carrying out orders.

Outside of the home, these individuals are viewed as ideal students and employees.  They have a strong need for approval, especially from authority figures.  As a result, they are cooperative, reliable, conscientious, and appreciated by their leaders and mentors.  Compliant firstborns also tend to be easily manipulated.  Assertiveness doesn’t come easily and they have a natural desire to please others, so it is fairly easy for others to take advantage of them.  As children they are given responsibility for siblings; as adults they continue the pattern by taking responsibility for others.  They are “doormats” around the office or the over-committed church member.

Even when over-committed and overloaded, it is extremely difficult for these compliant firstborns to disappoint others by backing out and slowing down.  Frequently they become quietly resentful and bitter.

Some compliant firstborns are unable to please their parents, typically because of unrealistic expectations placed on them.  When positive reinforcement is consistently missing in the home, the compliant firstborn often becomes the “frustrated failure.”  When this child can’t measure up to his parents’ standards, instead of working harder to please others, he or she gives up.  As an adult this individual is passive, unmotivated and chronically self-defeating.

The second personality common to firstborns is that of the “driver”, who is independent, assertive, and strong willed. Rather than waiting for leadership to be handed over to him or her, this child has learned to take it.  Directing and controlling others seem to come naturally.

As adults these individuals tend to be high achievers, extremely productive and energetic, outperforming their peers.  They are competitive and take pride in being able to do more in less time than anyone else.

While assertive firstborns are very successful professionally, they typically neglect relationships on their way to the top.  Their need for control and focus on performance often make them difficult to become close to emotionally.

Firstborns tend to be more perfectionistic then their siblings and are more apt to view their world in terms of black and white.  Firstborn children tend to be fairly inflexible when it comes to rules.  Definitions of right and wrong, and good and bad, appear more distinct for these people, and they are often intent on having others comply with their interpretation of the rules.

In a marriage relationship, firstborns tend to have a strong need for and expectation of control.  Firstborns typically have difficulty accepting criticism from their spouses.  If you are a firstborn, you would do well to lower the expectations you have for yourself.  By performing less and relaxing more, you will find that your relationships naturally deepen.

The Lastborn.  The role most familiar to lastborns is that of follower.  The youngest child typically accustomed to being cared for, watched over, and provided for by siblings as well as parents.  Lastborns can usually be characterized as performers or tagalongs.

A performer is a child who grows up being coddled, catered to, and focused on by the rest of the family.  As the center of attention for the family, this member develops into a “performer”.  He learns to be very aware of people’s responses to him and often becomes a very effective manipulator.  This child has the tendency to be spoiled, moody, and impulsive.

A lastborn child who grows up being minimized – ignored, or not taken seriously – may become a tagalong.  Mom and Dad may be very busy at this stage in their life, with their attention divided among the other children, jobs, hobbies, and social life.  The “little tagalong” may end up with whatever energy and attention is left over.

For this child, the familiar role is that of being directed and led.  These individuals grow up with a strong emotional dependence on others.  Decision-making is often difficult.  They tend to be agreeable and conforming.  They are most comfortable in settings where someone else in charge will give them clear direction.

In either one of these scenarios, youngest children are not treated as peers by anyone in the family.  They are not given as much responsibility and less maturity is expected of them.  Parental demands are focused elsewhere.

Lastborns tend to be more carefree and less prone to worry than their siblings.  They have less need to be in control and have less concern about detail.  They tend to be more social and have a high need for the attention of others.  Because of their thirst for attention, they respond well to encouragement.  A pep talk and a few “attaboys” motivate lastborns to achieve, though their efforts may be short-lived if the praise drops off.

In a marriage relationship, lastborns tend to bring out the dominant side of their partners, who are often firstborns.  The lastborn personality seems to invite a parenting response from others, though this may not be obvious before marriage.  The spontaneous, vivacious, playful characteristics of a lastborn that are attractive in courtship are also the impulsive, temperamental, irresponsible traits that drive a firstborn spouse crazy.

If you are a lastborn, beware of your tendency toward self-centeredness.

The Middle Child.  The designation of “middle child” applies to anyone born between the first and last child.  The middle child is the one with the fewest photos in the family album, and the most hand-me-down clothes in his wardrobe.  Like a wheel that doesn’t squeak, middle children are easy to overlook.

While the parents’ responses to the oldest and youngest kids tend to be fairly predictable, responses to middle children vary.  Where middle children “fit” will tend to be influenced primarily by other factors, particularly the number, ages, and gender of their siblings.

Personality development of the middle child is probably most strongly determined by the personality of the older sibling.  Because the middle position has no inherent uniqueness, these children need to seek out a special identity within the family.  Some middle children become competitors in order to earn a place of recognition in the family, while others are invisible children, unable to gain recognition.

The competitor feels he or she has to earn a place of recognition within the family.  Generally unable to successfully take over the role occupied by the firstborn sibling, this child develops other areas around which to develop an identity.  If the firstborn has found an area in which to excel, the second child will typically develop skills in some opposite area:

  • If the firstborn is rebellious, the second born will be compliant.
  • If the firstborn is an athlete, the second born will be a scholar or musician.
  • If the firstborn is social and outgoing, the second born will be quiet and introspective.
  • If the firstborn is structured and organized, the second born will be random and spontaneous.

The invisible child cannot find a place of recognition within the family.  For a number of possible reasons, he or she is not rewarded for success in any particular area.  This is the child who eventually gives up on success, because whatever attempts he has made have met with frustration and failure.

Whatever form their personalities take, middle children are usually the members who function most independently of the family.  They tend to be more emotionally distant than other family members and their primary source of emotional support generally comes from outside the family, usually from their peers.

One experience universal to all middle children is that of having a comfortable role taken from them.  All middle children were at one point the lastborn.  The attention naturally showered on the baby of the family once belonged to them, until younger brother or sister came along.

In a marriage relationship, middle children can be hard to get close to emotionally.  Since these people naturally adapt to those around them, it may be difficult to determine what middle children actually feel.  Uncomfortable with conflict or confrontation, they may withdraw in silence rather than face these problems directly.  Middle children may passively choose to live with hurt and offense rather than “make waves”.

The Only Child.  Only children often become an interesting blend of traits common in both the firstborn and lastborn children.  Their behavior, perspectives, and reactions are typical of firstborns, but emotionally they are very similar to lastborn children.

Since their parent’s expectations are usually high, as they are for firstborn children, only children tend to be performers and high achievers.  They have a tendency toward perfectionism, and their verbal skills are usually well above average.  These are all characteristics shared with firstborn children.

The other side of the coin is that only children spend their formative years being the “main event” of their parents’ lives.  Similar to the experience of many lastborn children, being the focus of attention often becomes part of the only child’s expectations of life.

The personality of the only child may take on two general directions, that of treasured only or structured only, depending on the circumstances of birth.

The treasured only is the only child whose parents had a desire for more children but for one reason or another were able to have only one.  The focus of attention, time, and energy, often results in a child who may have difficulty sharing the spotlight with others and who is seen as being spoiled or self-centered.

The structured child is the child whose parents had only one child because they chose to have only one child.  They planned their family this way and stuck to their plan.  In any case, these parents are generally well-organized, self-disciplined planners.  The household tends to be a fairly structured, disciplined home and child develops in accord with this atmosphere.  This family often expects the child to be a miniature adult, so the child tends to behave maturely but feels uncomfortable among peers.

In either case, the only child grows up relating closely with adults rather than other children.  He or she may not learn to interact comfortably with peers, though feeling very at ease with authority figures.  Only children tend to be less spontaneous and playful than other children, and while their verbal skills are usually very good, they may be the least talkative in a group.  They often have difficulty developing close relationships and frequently describe themselves as lonely.  As these discomforts are generally kept inside, only children appear to cope fairly well in life.  As adults they frequently appear very confident and self-assured in social situations, but inwardly they feel vaguely uncomfortable, insecure and ill at ease.

In a marriage relationship, only children often struggle to cope with the idiosyncrasies of another personality.  Normal mood changes in their partners are especially frustrating and confusing for only children.  While they may deeply love, care for, and enjoy their partners, only children tend to be most comfortable when alone.

Twins.  The placement of twins in birth order is more complex than that of single birth children.  For example, in twins born to a family with an older sibling, the older twin will develop characteristics of a second-born and younger twin will take on the role of the third born sibling.  Most twins know which of them was born first.  This may indicate the family’s tendency to respond to them according to their birth order and reinforce these characteristics.  Twins as a unit generally have a very special place in the family – twins are special, and they usually know it.

When a child is born after a childless gap of six years or more, the birth order usually starts over.  Because of their age difference, they will probably never spend much time with each other.

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