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Destiny in numbers, The National 06.04.10

Eldest, youngest or in-between: birth order may play a bigger part in our lives than we realise, says Jo Wadham

Have you ever wondered how your children can have such different characters? In the old nature versus nurture debate, parents swear blind they haven’t done anything different and yet John is an introverted bookish soul and Bobby is a sports mad athlete.

The answer could lie in the psychology of birth order, or ordinal position, which, while it might not be able to predict whether your child will be the next Bill Gates, can nevertheless help you understand what makes him or her tick.

For the sceptics, there is abundant empirical evidence illustrating the predominance of particular birth order types in different fields: 21 of the first 23 US astronauts were first borns; more than fifty per cent of American presidents have been first borns (or functional first borns – more on that later). A striking proportion of entrepreneurs are middle children, Gates, Donald Trump and Steve Forbes among them, while many successful comedians, including Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey and Steve Martin are last borns. Surely more than mere coincidence?

Helen Harris lives and works in Abu Dhabi and is the mother of two boys, exactly two years apart in age. She admits “I haven’t read anything specific about birth order, but I do find it extraordinary to have such fundamentally different children. I haven’t done anything different in raising them, but they are polar opposites.” Her elder child, Edward, seven, is “boisterous, a really butch boy”. He is the more confident and a big character, Harris explains, whereas his brother, Tom, is “the quieter one” – quicker to cry and more empathetic. “But,” says Harris, “he has made himself noticed. He has found ways to be in the spotlight.”

Birth order theories are not new. The influence of birth order on an individual’s psychological make-up was first considered by Dr Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud and Jung. His ideas have been a huge influence on Dr Kevin Leman, a psychologist and author of more than 38 books including The Birth Order Book – why you are the way you are.

According to Leman, first-born children tend to be natural leaders, reliable, conscientious, list-makers, organisers, and perfectionists. Children become like that not despite the parenting they receive, but because of it. We tend to be harshest on first borns, as Dr Leman explains on the phone from his office in the US: “The first born is the lab rat of the family – the one we experiment on.”

First-borns, Leman argues, tend to be organised and perfectionist because the care they receive is more anxious and focused solely on them. He writes in his book: “With only parents… for role models, they naturally take on more grown-up characteristics.”

The typical traits of a middle child are that they can be rootless but reasonable, social lions, independent thinkers, compromising, diplomatic and secretive. Leman maintains that as many middle children “play off the first born” it is hard to predict how they will turn out, but that as a result of feeing squeezed out, they will often spend more time with their peer group than with their family.

Middle children tend to make good entrepreneurs, “because they couldn’t have mom and dad all to themselves and get their way, they learnt to negotiate and compromise,” writes Leman, adding that they are also likely to be mentally tough and independent.

Last borns are usually charming, people-orientated, tenacious, affectionate and engaging and are uncomplicated attention seekers – their personalities will develop to ensure they don’t get overlooked. In a family of three or more, by the time the last child is born, the parents are either more relaxed and confident, or the burden of parenting may be shared with the older siblings.

These are broad-brush character traits which critics of birth order theory dismiss as being as vague as horoscopes. They argue that children are subject to many external influences that shape their personalities, but Dr Leman is specific in his book about factors, or variables, that affect the theory.

The variables he identifies are: spacing (the number of years between siblings); the child’s sex; physical, mental and emotional differences; unexpected changes to the family whether through death, adoption or blending of a step-family; birth order position of each parent; relationship between the parents; and the “critical eye” of a parent.

For example, if you are the second-born child but the first of your sex, or there is a gap between you and your nearest older sibling of more than five years, you can be a “functional first-born”, taking on some first-born characteristics.

Obviously styles of parenthood have an impact. Leman states in his book: “In any family a lot depends on the personality and parenting style of mom and dad.” And what affects the parents’ personalities? Their own birth-orders of course. If the parents are first-born and perfectionist themselves, then it is all the more likely that this will affect their own first-born – this is what Leman calls “the critical eye”.

“Instead of indulging their first-born child, they will probably be extra hard on him or her as they exert their own exacting standards and learn how to parent at the same time,” he writes.

On the telephone he explains: “The kid you bump heads with is the kid most like you.” This doesn’t apply just to first-borns. Leman, the baby of his parents’ family, admits he related more to the baby in his own family.

Jude Comyn is a mother of three living in Abu Dhabi. As a last born herself, she agrees that in some ways she does identify more with George, her youngest, but not by way of favouritism. “I do see where he is coming from,” she says, “but I dislike some of it. I am almost less empathetic, because I can see what he is doing. I think, ‘You little terror – you are really manipulating them!’”

While birth order should not be treated as some form of ordinal determinism, understanding it can offer great insights for parents. Leman suggests, “It can help parents to understand who they are and why the cubs in the family are so very, very different.” Instead of constantly aiming for equality, he says, the key is “to treat them all differently.”

He maintains that birth order theories can also have applications outside the home – in business and in finding the perfect spouse, or dealing with the one you have. (See his book The Perfect Match).

In our conversation, Leman offers a couple of pointers to parents: “Groom your first-borns for success; give them responsibility.” For middle children he suggests, “Ask the middle child, ‘Honey, what do you think we should do?’ No one asks the middle child anything. And,” he adds, laughing, “make sure the babies don’t get away with murder.”

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