The Truth About How Birth Order Affects Personality
Read what research says about the differences between firstborns and the rest.
By Leah Maxwell
Are firstborns more responsible? Is the baby of the family more easygoing? If you’ve ever noticed this pattern -- either growing up or as you’ve raised your own kids -- it won’t surprise you that a recent poll backs up the idea that birth order affects personality. The information, gathered by the international Internet-based market research firm YouGov, says firstborns feel they’re more sensible than their youngest siblings.
The poll of more than 1,700 adults showed that the eldest sibling in a family was more likely to report him- or herself as more responsible, organized, successful, and self-confident, whereas youngest siblings characterized themselves as more easygoing funny, and relaxed.
Although this evidence is anecdotal rather than scientific, experts in the field of psychology and family dynamics say that “nature” may be less important than “nurture” in this case.
“It is typical for firstborns to feel they are more responsible because the parenting of firstborns is completely new and tends to be more strict, as parents find their way through the unknowns,” says Sherrie Campbell, PhD. “[Parents] learn through the firstborn what is a big deal and what isn’t, and so some of those rules soften for the younger children.”
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Along with the rigidity that comes with first-time parenting, another factor that contributes to the differences in personality between older and younger children is the idea that many parents have higher standards for their firstborns. This can be because they harbor unrealistic ideas about how children should act or because they figure the older a child is, the more he or she should “know better.”
“Typically, parents have high expectations for their firstborn child, and the younger one is freed from having to live up to those expectations,” says Debbie Pincus, LMHC, a parenting and marriage coach and a contributor to EmpoweringParents.com. “[When] the parents are a bit more relaxed ... the younger child typically is more relaxed and mellow.”
Pincus says younger siblings are also, in many ways, forced to be more adaptable, since they join a family in which everything doesn’t revolve around them, the way it might with a firstborn. “I am sure that second and third children do learn to roll with the punches more as they are carted around and must adapt to the older sibling’s life from day 1,” she says.
While parents obviously have an effect on the development of their children, Campbell says the sibling-to-sibling relationship is just as important. As the older playmate, “a firstborn ... has to be more responsible and look out for the younger sibling.” At the same time, the younger sibling, who always has another child to play with, is likely to be more relaxed and playful, she says.
But while there’s some truth to the claim that birth order affects personality, Campbell advises parents against assuming their children will fit the mold. “Each child requires different parenting from the same parents, so when [the stereotypical birth-order role] is reversed and the younger sibling is more responsible, it comes down to parents understanding the individual temperaments of each child and parenting from that place rather than some parenting ‘model’ that [dismisses their] uniqueness.”
How is your firstborn different from your other kids?
Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.
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