In our early years as parents, my husband and I watched with wonder and awe as our boys grew and matured. We celebrated their new skills and abilities at various ages and stages. We absorbed all we could about child development.
Then we learned that “parent development” is a thing, too. And doesn’t that make sense? As parents, we learn and grow and adapt right along with our children and we continue to expand our love and attention as we add additional children to the nest.
So why is it that children are often so different from each other and from their parents, even in cases where the family shares the same genetic makeup?
The Family Constellation
As it turns out, the Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler wondered about this, too. Back in the late 1920s and ‘30s, he coined the term “Family Constellation” to represent the operation of the family system, which he defined as including not only parents and siblings in the family of origin, but also anyone else who lived in the household, such as grandparents, other relatives and caretakers.
Adler said that “No child is born into the same family.” By this he meant that each child is born into an inherently different family system because the addition of each new member inevitably shifts the dynamics. As children are added to the system, each child strives to find her own way of belonging in the family. Children might seek to establish themselves as “The Good Student,” “The Musician,” “The Athlete,” “The Artist” or “The Family Clown.” In some cases, if a child struggles to find a positive way of fitting in, he might carve out a reputation for misbehaving, acting out or in other ways separating himself from the family through negative behaviors. Enter the proverbial “Black Sheep.”
Birth order can also play a major part in how children find their special place within the family. Very often, children fall into stereotypical roles associated with their birth order position.
When the firstborn arrives, she enjoys her parents’ undivided attention. She shares the limelight with no one. On the day of our firstborn son’s first birthday, two great-grandparents, five grandparents and two parents attended his birthday celebration. All the greats and grands had traveled over several states, by plane and by train, to attend. As three generations of adults sat around the dinner table – enraptured – watching the baby squeeze bits of “smash cake” between his chubby fingers, GD, the patriarch of the family, declared, “What this kid needs are some siblings!”
When the second child arrives, the firstborn experiences the sensation of being set aside and does not generally enjoy the shift in attention from herself to the new arrival. Adler described this experience as one of being “dethroned.” The firstborn might ask his parents, “When are you taking that baby back to the hospital?” or otherwise express dismay at his perceived demotion in status.
The middle child
When three or more children are born into a family, the role of the middle child is created. Middles can be adaptable and independent. They often take on the role of peacemaker in the family. Sometimes they might feel left out or overshadowed by the achievements of the first born or the fun-loving antics of the youngest.
The youngest child
Which brings us to the “Baby” in the family. Youngests are sometimes pampered by their parents as well as their older siblings. They might be accustomed to having an audience of admirers who find them cute and entertaining and are eager to help them. Youngests might be social, charming and outgoing and they might also be attention-seekers.
The only child
In the absence of siblings, only children are likely to be confident and at ease around adults. Accustomed to being the center of attention, some may share characteristics of the youngest child, developing a tendency to seek attention and approval. Or they might resemble a firstborn – responsible and mature for their age.
Psychological birth order
Adler’s study of birth order and its impact on personality also led him to develop the concept of what he called “psychological birth order.” He noted that a person’s psychological birth order might differ from her actual, or ordinal, birth order. If, for example, the firstborn suffers from a chronic illness, the secondborn might assume the role of the firstborn in some ways and might take on some of the characteristics typically associated with a firstborn.
Other factors that influence birth order are gender and spacing between children. A child who is the only girl or boy in the family will likely enjoy the benefits or disadvantages of this unique status. A child who is separated in age by seven or more years from his nearest sibling is likely to feel more like an only child than a firstborn or lastborn. In cases where a family experiences the loss of a child, the absence of the child might create the conscious or unconscious effect of “ghost child” in the family dynamic.
Creating a cooperative family dynamic
To avoid creating or perpetuating birth order stereotypes, parents can resist the urge to label children. Instead, they can help each child adapt in a harmonious way by encouraging empathy, modeling acceptance, celebrating others’ differences and nurturing each child’s sense of “Social Interest.” Adler defined Social Interest as a sense of true community – an orientation toward living in cooperation with others and a worldview that values the common good above one’s own interests and desires. Parents can encourage siblings to collaborate and work together in a way that celebrates and optimizes each individual’s unique, positive characteristics.
Birth order offers insight and useful information that might be helpful in understanding ourselves and others. Having an awareness of tendencies that might be motivated by our perceived or actual position in our family of origin can help us to capitalize on the positives and minimize the negatives in the daily expression of our lives.
Typical birth order characteristics
Firstborns: achiever, perfectionist, leader, bossy, responsible, motivated, conscientious, controlling, cautious, reliable
Middleborns: adaptable, independent, go-between, people-pleaser, can be rebellious, feels left out, peacemaker, social
Lastborns: social, charming, outgoing, uncomplicated, manipulative, seeks attention, self-centered, fun
Only Child: confident, conscientious, precocious, responsible, perfectionist, mature for their age, seeks approval, sensitive, leader