Birth order


Birth order is the chronological order of sibling births in a family .


Alfred Adler (1870–1937) was a pioneer in the study of birth order. His research suggested that the position a child had by the order of birth significantly affected the child's growth and personality. Research in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century shows even greater influence, contributing to intelligence , career choice, and, to a certain degree, success in adulthood.

Being born first, last, or somewhere in the middle of itself is not of significance. What matters is how that birth order affects how a child is treated by parents and other siblings and how that child feels about it. Other factors also influence the child's socialization and the parents' expectations.

Birth spacing, gender, physical attributes, and being a twin also affect personality formation and the interpretation of birth order and behavior. These factors influence how parents treat children and how each child is viewed by the other siblings.

Birth spacing changes the dynamics of strict birth order, too. If there is a gap of five or more years between children, each child may be treated as an only child or as a firstborn. If there is a large gap between groups of children in a large family, each group may be treated as a separate birth order family. For example, if child 1, 2, and 3 are three years apart and there is a gap of six years before child 4 is born and child 5 and 6 follow in two year intervals, then child 1, 2, and 3 form a birth order grouping of firstborn, middle, and last, and child 4, 5, and 6 form another grouping of first, middle, and lastborn.

Gender also has a major impact on how a child is treated within the birth order arrangement. The firstborn of either gender, no matter where in the sibling order the child falls, will often be treated as a firstborn. For example if a family has two daughters then has two sons, the first daughter and the first son will be treated as firstborns. The daughter is the true firstborn, but the first son is the first child in the household to be treated with what the family perceives as maleness. Historically, this held true and usually contributed to older sisters not having a claim to inheritance because of their gender.

In addition, if there is only one daughter in a family of three boys, the daughter will often be treated as a first born no matter where in the birth order she is born. The simple fact that she is the only one of her sex allows her to take on the characteristics of a firstborn and be treated as such. This obviously also applies to one son in a household of daughters.

That sense of specialness also applies to children's physical attributes and conditions. If a child of any birth order has a serious medical problem or a physical or mental disability, that child rises either to firstborn status or lastborn status because parental attention is placed on this special child. Robust health and beauty can also skew birth order expectations. For example, if there are two sons and the younger is bigger and more athletic, the younger may be treated as a firstborn because parental favor and expectations are higher for this child. Likewise, if the younger of two daughters is extremely pretty and her older sister is plain, the younger may either be treated as a favored lastborn or as a high-achieving firstborn.

Twins and other birth multiples also skew birth order predictions. Each twin or multiple grouping has its own birth rank. The firstborn twin usually takes on leadership roles for the twin pair. The secondborn usually is more compliant and willing to follow. For the single birth children born after twins or other multiples, birth order is skewed because the twins or multiples have become special children and, in the case of multiples, are their own birth order unit.

Birth order research focuses on five ordinal birth positions: firstborn, secondborn, middle, last, and only children.


In general, firstborn children have been found to be responsible, assertive, task-oriented, perfectionistic, and supporters of authority. Because they often look after their younger siblings, they get experience leading and mentoring others, often rising to leadership positions as adults. Nearly half of all U.S. presidents were firstborns; only four were lastborns. Studies have also linked firstborn children with higher academic achievement and possibly higher intelligence scores when compared to later-born children. This may be due to more exposure to adult language and greater interactions with parents. Firstborns often choose professions that require precision, such as careers in science, medicine, law, engineering, computer science, or accounting.

Firstborns can harbor some resentment toward siblings because parental attention has to be shared. They strive to hang onto parental affection by conforming, either to their parents' wishes, their teachers', or society's. If this does not bring the attention they want, some firstborns defy authority and misbehave or rebel.

Secondborns and middle children

Many secondborns are also middle children. They often report feeling inferior to older children because they do not possess their sibling's advanced abilities. Sometimes, they are very competitive with their firstborn sibling. Others choose to focus their energies in areas different from those in which their older sibling is already established. This competition with firstborns drives secondborns and middleborns to innovation, doing or being different from their older siblings in order to make themselves stand out in the family dynamic. In truth, they often are more competent at an earlier age than their older siblings because they have had their example to follow.

Middle children can feel forgotten or overlooked because of the attention or demands of either the firstborns or the lastborns. Some of these children never seem to find their place in the social order, and they try to rebel or misbehave in order to draw attention to themselves. Some of these troubled middle children bully younger siblings or children at school.

Other middle children capitalize on the injustice they feel as children and become trial lawyers or social activists because such roles allow them to fight against other social injustices. Some middleborns become very socially skilled because they have learned to negotiate and compromise daily with their siblings and their parents. Some of these children are often called the peacemakers of the household.

Middle children have also been found to succeed in team sports , and both they and lastborns have been found to be more socially adjusted if they come from large families.


Lastborns are generally considered to be the family "baby" throughout their lives. Because of nurturing from many older family members and the example of their siblings, lastborns from large families tend to develop strong social and coping skills and may even be able to reach some milestones earlier. As a group, they have been found to be the most successful socially and to have the highest self-esteem of all the birth positions.

Youngest children may feel weak and helpless because they compare themselves with older siblings who are able to do more things physically and socially. They may feel that they always have more growing up to do in order to have the privileges they see their older siblings have. Some lastborns develop self-esteem problems if older siblings or parents take power away from these lastborns so that they cannot make decisions or take responsibility. Because of this powerlessness, some lastborns may be grandiose, with big plans that never work out.

Some lastborns transfer this powerlessness into a personal asset by becoming the boss of the family, coyly eliciting or openly demanding their own way. Some families jump to and cater to these lastborns.

Other lastborns engage in sibling rivalry because of the injustices they think they experience because they are the youngest. Some ally with firstborns against middleborns.

Only children

Only children may demonstrate characteristics of firstborns and lastborns. Firstborns, after all, are only children until the first sibling is born. Only children grow up relating to adults in the family but have trouble relating to peers. However, this changes as they reach adulthood and get along well with adults.

Only children are achievement-oriented and most likely to attain academic success and attend college. They may also be creative. But only children can be pampered and spoiled as lastborns and can be self-centered. They may rely on service from others rather than their exert their own efforts. They sometimes please others if it suits them but may also be uncooperative. They can also be over-protected.

Some only children become hypercritical, not tolerating mistakes or failure in themselves or others. They can also transform this perfectionist tendency into rescuing behavior, agonizing over the problems of others and rushing to take over and solve everything without letting others help themselves.

Common problems

Sibling rivalry is a normal part of family life. All children become jealous of the love and attention that siblings receive from parents and other adults. When a new baby comes into the family, older children feel betrayed by their parents and may become angry, directing their anger first toward the parents and later toward the intruder who is usurping their position. Jealousy, resentment, and competition are most intense between siblings spaced less than three years apart. Although a certain amount of sibling rivalry is unavoidable, there are measures that parents can take to reduce its severity and its potential effects on their children.

An older child should be prepared for a new addition to the family by having the situation explained and being told in advance about who will take care of her while her mother is in the hospital having the baby. The child's regular routine should be disturbed as little as possible; it is preferable for the child to stay at home and under the care of the father or another close family member. If there is to be a new babysitter or other caretaker unknown to the child, it is helpful for them to meet at least once in advance. If sibling visits are allowed, the child should be taken to visit the mother and new baby in the hospital.

Once the new baby is home, it is normal for an older child to feel hurt and resentful at seeing the attention lavished on the newcomer by parents, other relatives, and family friends. It is not uncommon for the emotional turmoil of the experience to cause disturbances in eating or sleeping. Some children regress, temporarily losing such attainments as weaning, bowel and bladder control, or clear speech, in an attempt to regain lost parental attention by becoming babies again themselves.

There are a number of ways to ease the unavoidable jealousy of children whose lives have been disrupted by the arrival of a younger sibling. When friends or relatives visit to see the new baby, parents can make the older child feel better by cuddling him or giving him special attention, including a small present to offset the gifts received by the baby. The older child's self-esteem can be bolstered by involving him in the care of the newborn in modest ways, such as helping out when the baby is being diapered or dressed or helping push the stroller. The older child should be made to feel proud of the achievements and responsibilities that go along with his more advanced age—things the new baby cannot do yet because he or she is too young. Another way to make older children feel loved and appreciated is to set aside some quality time to spend alone with each of them on a regular basis. It is also important for parents to avoid overtly comparing their children to each other, and every effort should be made to avoid favoritism.

In general, the most stressful aspect of sibling rivalry is fighting. Physical, as opposed to verbal, fights usually peak before the age of five. It is important for parents not to take sides but rather to help children work out disagreements, calling for a "time out" for feelings to cool down, if necessary. Over-insistence that siblings share can also be harmful. Children need to retain a sense of individuality by developing boundaries with their siblings in terms of possessions, territory, and activities. Furthermore, it is especially difficult for very young children to share their possessions.

Parents should take time to praise cooperation and sharing between siblings as a means of positive reinforcement. The fact that siblings quarrel with each other does not necessarily mean that they will be inconsiderate, hostile, or aggressive in their dealings with others outside the family. The security of family often makes children feel free to express feelings and impulses they are unable to express in other settings.

Parental concerns


Firstborns often feel pressure to succeed or perform well, either by parents or through their own inner drives. They often are called on to take care of younger siblings or do chores because they are responsible. Firstborns also feel pressure to be good examples for their siblings.

Some parents are quick to punish firstborns for not measuring up. Others constantly correct firstborns because they think it will help these children succeed. If firstborns cannot meet these expectations or fear that they cannot, they often become depressed and sometimes resort to suicide to escape the pain they feel.

Parents need to realize that firstborns need not be perfect in order to succeed. They are already eager to please and criticism should be limited to broad strokes rather than focus on minor imperfections. Responsibilities should be meted out in small batches according to their age appropriate abilities. In addition, parents should acknowledge firstborns as people, not the products of their efforts.

When placed in leadership or mentoring roles with their younger siblings, some firstborns may demonstrate aggressive or domineering behavior. They may boss their brothers or sisters around or lord it over them. These behaviors can also transfer to the school setting, making these children uncooperative with their peers. Parents should monitor leadership behavior to make sure these children learn to lead with kindness while respecting other people's feelings.

Secondborns and middle children

Secondborns and middle children often feel invisible. Parents need to make a special effort to seek out their opinions in family discussions. Finding out what special talents or interests these children have and encouraging them through classes or events makes them feel like they matter and are as important as firstborns or lastborns. All of the children in family then feel special and loved as the unique individuals they are.


Youngest children are not usually very responsible because they have not been given the opportunity. Parents can foster responsibility and self-reliance by giving even the youngest child some responsibility, such as setting the table or putting clean clothing in their dresser drawers.

If lastborns are being bullied by older siblings, parents need to step in. Children need help developing strategies for working out difficulties. They can also benefit from hearing parents tell older siblings that it took time for them to do the things that lastborns are struggling to do.

Only children

Parents need to help their only children socialize with other children. They also need to help them accept imperfection in themselves and others by being tolerant of it themselves. In order to keep only children from being rescuers, parents need to help these children develop patience and understanding of differences in others.


Birth multiples —Children born in multiple births; e.g. twins, triplets, quads, etc.

Sibling rivalry —Competition among brothers and sisters in a nuclear family. It is considered to be an important influence in shaping the personalities of children who grow up in middle-class Western societies but less relevant in traditional African and Asian cultures.

See also Sibling rivalry .



Isaacson, Cliff, and Kris Radish. The Birth Order Effect: How to Better Understand Yourself and Others. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corp., 2002.

Konig, Karl. Brothers and Sisters: The Order of Birth in the Family. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 2002.

Krohn, Katherine E. Everything You Need to Know about Birth Order. New York: Rosen, 2000.

Leman, Kevin. The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2004.

Richardson, Donald W. Birth Order and You: Are You the Oldest, Middle, and Youngest Child? Bellingham, WA: Self-Counsel Press, 2004.


"Birth Order May Affect Career Interests." USA Today 131, i. 2687 (August 2002): 11.

Renkl, Margaret. "Oldest, Youngest, or in Between: How Your Child's Birth Order Can Affect Her Personality—and What You Can Do to Influence Its Impact." Parenting 16, i. 5 (June 1, 2002): 82+.

Janie Franz

User Contributions:

Estelle Daniel
Please tell me, as a youngest child, the daughter who has two brothers 8 and 10 years older, what exactly am I - youngest, only, firstborn? I developed mental health problems in late adolescence, could this be solely the consequence of being spoiled or is it that I inherit the "worst" of both worlds? Because I notice other people don't seem to give me a chance.

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