WRITTEN BY: VALERIE CHEN
On May 16, 1993, at approximately 4 a.m., my life changed forever.
Eric Chen entered the world, red-faced, screaming and crying – all 7.5 pounds of him. I gingerly entered the hospital room, not quite comprehending what was going on. After all, I was only 3 years old. Wide-eyed, I clutched my 8-year-old sister Melody’s hand, worriedly glancing at my tired mother’s face. I tugged at my father’s shirt, begging for some kind of explanation. I cried for my mother to hold and reassure me that everything was okay. Instead, my father shooed me outside.
And so, life as the middle child began.
For years, psychologists, researchers and family members alike have pondered exactly how much birth order truly affects an individual. We typically assume it does. After all, it’s common knowledge – or rather, a common assumption – that all of birth order-related stereotypes, both negative and positive, are real and applicable in all of our lives.
The oldest child is bound to bossy. The middle child is quite plainly, forgotten. Last, but certainly not least, the youngest child is a brat.
On the other side of the spectrum, the oldest child will succeed in future endeavors, thanks to excellent leadership skills. The youngest child, with extra free reign for self-discovery, will boast of creativity and charisma.
Oops – once again, the middle child is overlooked. But as alternative rock band Jimmy Eat World sang in its 2001 hit “The Middle”: “Hey, don’t write yourself off yet / It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on”… So don’t worry my fellow middle children, I’ll get to you soon enough.
All of these typecasts are what we’re repeatedly told and what often happens in human nature, we accept what the majority believes as true. But to what extent are these stereotypes, so casually passed from mouth to mouth, accurate? And when will the stereotypically forgotten middle children get their time to shine?
People obviously don’t get to choose their birth order. Whether an individual is the oldest or the youngest or in the middle, it happens by biological chance. This “ordinal position,” or the literal birth order of the siblings, is matter-of-fact. You were born first so you’re stuck with being the oldest. Done deal. However, the term “psychological position” takes on a deeper meeting by alluding to the how a sibling handles his or her ordinal position.
The Adlerian Perspective
Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychiatrist and theorist, pioneered the use of birth-order position in treating clients. Developing what became known as an “Adlerian Perspective,” Adler stressed the significance of psychological birth order. Rather than “a child’s number in the order of successive births, which influences his character,” the key component of influence is the individual’s circumstances and how he handles the given conditions, according an issue of The Journal of Individual Psychology in 2010. “Non-Adlerians” are inclined to concentrate on ordinal birth position, thus neglecting the magnitude of psychological factors.
Michelle Gottlieb, Psy.D., MFT, works with individuals, couples and families in therapy and teaches at Cal State Fullerton’s Counseling Department. She explains that when doing an intake, she always asks what birth position the client holds in the family. Regardless of the client’s answer, its implications all depend on other aspects.
What you take from an individual’s birth order is strictly circumstantial: No component of birth order theories is always true.
Research performed by Jon Carlson, Richard E. Watts and Michael P. Maniacci in 2006 support the Adlerian view by noting that age differences greater than five years will place children in distinct subgroups and subsequently, alter ideas of ordinal position. Gottlieb also acknowledges that this amount of age difference between kids will make the theory fall apart. “They don’t need to compete with each other. It’s almost two generations; they’re so far apart that it doesn’t matter,” says Gottlieb. She adds that siblings of the same gender will usually compete with each other more than siblings of the opposite sex.
Another aspect can be if boys are more valued than girls in the family or vice versa. Then, there may be more attention on that child of the preferred gender, whether it is pressure to succeed or the idea that he or she can do absolutely no wrong. “Then that is going to change all the dynamics as opposed to if we love our kids fairly or equally,” says Gottlieb.
Say a father is abusive and a mother is absent from the All-American family ideal. The brother, who is the middle child, may act as a protective figure not only for his sister who is a year older, but also his younger sister. As a result, he has adapted attributes typical of the eldest child. This is less likely if the three siblings have doting parents, not needing a younger sibling to step up in dominance. Instead, the prevailing leadership position falls “naturally” to the eldest sibling.
This scenario exemplifies how family origin is one more dynamic affecting psychological birth order. Compare growing up in a functional family to growing up in an abusive family—there are bound to be lasting repercussions if an individual is accustomed to the latter. Blended families also tear down the idea of ordinal birth order because of the multiple psychological positions that inevitably occur. A youngest child may suddenly find himself with a younger sibling and then has to adapt and deal with not being the baby anymore.
Additionally, birth order is further confounded by variables such as parental age and level of education. Elderly parents who had children late or adopted may not want to deal with “teenager problems.” By the time their children reach the dreaded hormone and adrenaline driven age of stealing vodka from the liquor cabinet, they are more lenient and refrain from ruling with an iron fist.
What’s more, a parent with higher education might be aware of psychological birth order and know how to handle any potential related situations: “Sorry my 12-year-old youngest child, I refuse to spoil you. You cannot watch the newest ‘Twilight’ movie. I don’t care if you’re the most loyal member of Team Edward, that PG-13 movie has inappropriate carnivorous behavior.”
Without a doubt, analyzing birth position involves multiple components that either depend on or are affected by other factors. The variables complicate research, making 100 percent accuracy essentially impossible, which reiterates the lack of one supreme theory. The article from The Journal of Individual Psychology thoroughly reviews 200 birth-order studies, which wholly confirms birth order as “an extensively researched and controversial concept in social science literature.”
Despite the various ifs and buts regarding birth order both in ordinal and psychological terms, research across the board assigns similar personality descriptions to each birth order position. As previously stated, the stereotypes uttered in society are classically consistent when concerning the oldest, middle and youngest children.
The Oldest Child
Born first, the oldest child is the parents’ first attempt at producing an outstanding addition to mankind. This first child isn’t a piece of scratch paper that you can erase your pencil marks on or crumble up in a ball and throw in a trash can, just to start all over again on a fresh piece.
The first child has to be the perfect product of your parenting skills as your earliest and possibly only chance to have a wonderful son or daughter. And whether you would like to admit it or not, you want to everyone else you are capable of raising a great kid. So in order to earn those rights, you anticipate, or even demand, excellence from your first-born. Gottlieb explains that most first-time parents really don’t even know what they’re doing. “By the time we get to the second or the third or the twelfth child, you’ve gone through all of the mistakes, or we’re tired. The first one is the prince with the most pressure,” says Gottlieb.
Well, pressure’s on, dashing prince – better slay any dragons that get in the way of rescuing your prized princess of success. Failure is not an option when your parents are watching you, and the world is watching them.
As one might expect, eldest children typically become overachievers: responsible, oriented to reach success at all costs, accustomed to continual pressure and expectations. With this predisposition comes self-confidence because the oldest children have been fed encouragement to do well. And when they do well, they are compensated for their efforts with, at the very least, parental pride.
But, despite being oriented to reach success at all costs, the aforementioned costs can take a toll. Eldest children often possess a Type A personality; they are aggressively competitive, thrive under pressure and prefer to do everything as quickly as possible. However, characteristics such as being more anxious, neurotic, bossy, jealous and antagonistic can also manifest in eldest children, especially when siblings join the family and receive different treatment or a clear shift in attention transpires.
The Middle Child
Enter the frequently forgotten and less noticed middle child. Why exactly does the middle child apparently get lost in the translation of life?
Similar to how Gottlieb described the process of raising multiple children, Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT, a marriage and family therapist from Chino, says that parents probably have high expectations immediately entering parenthood, so full focus goes into raising that first child.
“When I have number one, I might have a whole pie of attention. But by the time I get to number two, I can’t say I’m going to give to number two every bit I gave number one. The problem is that my pie is shrinking because I’m still paying attention to number one. My ability to offer attention is gradually shrinking, so my piece of the pie that I’m going to give to that second child is smaller – it’s just the reality of things,” explains Kaplowitz.
Sugary goodness metaphor aside, many middle children grow up with the perception that they are not as important, especially compared to an older sibling. Those implanted thoughts can overstay their welcome in younger children’s minds. Self-doubt and lack of self-worth are very familiar, especially in middle children. Phrases such as “you were an accident” or “you’re adopted” may be uttered jokingly or lightheartedly, but can still deeply affect younger children when they already question their level of worth in the family.
Kaeli Filpi, a 20-year-old student attending Cal State Fullerton, is the middle child between two sisters, 22-year-old Coral and 17-year-old Cassidy. She currently majors in English; both her sisters favor more scientific subjects. In high school, Kaeli preferred the arts; on the other hand, Coral and Cassidy excelled in the athletic department.
To escape the overbearing shadow that older siblings cast, middle children find ways to create their own identities. The research by Carlson et. al proposes that “later-born characteristics may result from a teeter-totter game that second-born children play with first born children in which one goes up while the other one goes down.” Kaeli subconsciously demonstrates this by not following in her sister’s footsteps in interests. The middle child recognizes that even if the oldest child is close to perfect, there has to be some void or weakness that can be filled.
Regardless, Kaeli says people have pointed out her “middle child”-like qualities, and from what she understands, middle children “are the ones who are neglected, find ways to draw attention to themselves and act like things are most likely to be blamed on them.” Kaeli doesn’t think she really believes this anymore, but recalls instances when those feelings did exist. Growing up, Kaeli “butt heads a lot” with her mom because she was the sibling who always talked back. When asked why, she responded, “I guess I thought she treated my sisters better than I was treated.” Kaeli’s rebellion is also a common reaction from middle children to set them apart from the well-behaved older child.
But the two older siblings agree on one thing for certain: The youngest sibling is treated differently than they were when growing up. One example is their parents required Kaeli and Coral to work throughout high school while failing to give Cassidy the same obligation years later. The parents justify their decision with Cassidy’s wide involvement in school, but Kaeli says she and Coral were also involved – yet still had to work.
Yep. Just when you think the toys are finally all yours to play with because your older sibling has finally outgrown them, sibling number two comes along, and the dynamic of the family undergoes another huge change.
The Youngest Child
Now the parents have already taken some time raising two kids, so by the third one, they have a general idea how to go about it. As a result, youngest children usually receive the least amount of pressure.
This different treatment toward the youngest child can cultivate resentment in the older siblings. The youngest child cannot be as self-efficient as his or her older siblings because of his or her age. But, the older siblings ignore this fact and see the treatment as favoritism.
Middle and later-born children are described as “generally more adventurous, altruistic, cooperative, easygoing, open to experience, popular, rebellious, risk-taking, sociable and unconventional” in “Born to Rebel” by Frank J. Sulloway. Also, because middle children are closest in age to both the older and younger sibling, middle children have the ability to best understand their siblings.
Marc Sims, a 24-year-old operations manager with Orange County Social Services from Glendora, is approximately a year apart from both his aggressive older brother D.J. and his younger sister, Michelle, who is the “princess” of the family. He credits his extraverted personality to being a middle child. “I was able to talk to both siblings about whatever because I was that middle person. I’d pick the fights – I’d get my sister on one side and pick on my brother, or I’d get my brother on one side and pick on my sister. I was the middle instigator growing up; it was never the two against me. They had the three-year gap. I only had the one-year gap.”
But, curiously enough, his instigating tendencies as a child have evolved into being the peacemaker as an adult. He calls it a “weird progression” because now, he’s a lot calmer in arguments.
And these realizations came from his sibling relationships.
How To Handle Psychological Birth Positions
If you are going to have children, the effects of birth order are inevitable. But you can influence its components to not only your advantage, but to the children’s advantage as well. Be aware of the psychological birth order rather than just the ordinal birth order. Parents tend to disregard the fact that instances resulting from psychological birth order can be detrimental, much less even exist.
Seek help from available resources, especially those readily provided by the Internet. Learn from your own experiences as a child as well as other families close to you. Talk to your kids and get their perspective on how they feel about their siblings and their position in the family. A separate date with each child once a week can be a positive way to get to know the child one-on-one and make him or her feel special.
Gottlieb recommends for parents to see their children for who they are, not who they want or expect their children to be. Treat each child as a unique individual, disregarding that the oldest child “should” be the most successful or the youngest child “needs” babying. And don’t you dare forget about that middle child – he or she deserves love and attention as well.