But I Got Here First! How Birth Order Can Effect Sibling Roles
September 23, 2022
I’m a bit of a softie for sibling roles in family dynamics, and although there are definite limits to the validity of utilizing birth order to explain children’s traits, some value yet remains.
The belief in birth order as particularly relevant to the creation of specific personality traits seemed in fairly dire straits in the research world until recently. However, a 2007 study by two Norwegian epidemiologists supported the type of finding that has been the bread and butter of birth order hypotheses: a negative correlation between IQ and birth order. For real. They found (and it was a small correlation, so youngest of large families don’t need to panic, if they in fact need to worry at all) that the more older siblings one has, the lower one’s IQ. [Let me just establish here and now that I’m an eldest!]
Further, in 2009, Joshua Hartshorne, Ph.D. student at Harvard University, found together with his research colleagues that “birth order influences whom we choose as friends and spouses. Firstborns are more likely to associate with firstborns, middle-borns with middle-borns, last-borns with last-borns, and only children with only children.” He published an article entitled “How Birth Order Affects Your Personality” on Scientific American’s website with these two statistics.]
Additionally, Alfred Adler himself, the Austrian psychiatrist who first subscribed to the primacy of sibling roles in personality formation, recognized that, sometimes more than actual birth order, the siblings roles that the children construct–or get constructed for them–may be more relevant than actual birth order. In a piece on birth order entitled, curiously enough!, “Birth Order” we read that, “…although a child may be the youngest, the gender mix of the siblings, the differences in ages, and other unique variables may combine to create a firstborn role for the youngest child.”
But that assertion itself assumes the very belief in the ‘stereotyped’ role-structure for birth order amongst siblings.
So, what are we looking at in sibling roles, both regarding external behavior, and internal beliefs?
They run along lines I’m sure you’re familiar with–the responsible, achieving and parental-pleasing but more introverted eldest, the more adaptable but sometimes lost middle, the impulsive, charming, and skillful-at-getting-their-own-way youngest.
Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson in Genograms in Family Assessment highlight the high expectations placed on the first born by running through three generations of the Adams family’s genogram.
John Adams was himself an oldest–and, as president of the United States, we can safely call him a high-achiever. McGoldrick writes that he had “the high ambition, drive and sense of responsibility so typical of an oldest child” (p. 48), which he passed down to his son, John Quincy. Now, John Quincy was actually a second, but referring back up to Adler’s constructed birth order, because the eldest was a girl, with much fewer expectations placed on her, John Quincy played the role of the oldest for our circumstances here. John’s expectations were high for John Quincy, who did indeed succeed [becoming president does strike me as unambiguously a success], but paid a price for such elevated hopes, as he was subject to self-doubt and criticism and prone to depression. The suffering under the expectations for the oldest only worsened under John Quincy’s first-born George Washington, who was unsuccessful in life, despite parental high hopes, and actually eventually killed himself.
McGoldrick contrasts this dynamic with that of playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was the youngest of a youngest. She notes that he was a “rebel and iconoclast” who enjoyed poking fun at established institutions. Apparently he was also somewhat of a slob, more invested in having fun than in the day-to-day tasks of taking care of his health and home.
But, returning to our family systems approach, what specific roles do sibling play in the family, and what purpose does that serve in family functioning? And what, beneath their facades, do these children [whether they are children or adults] believe about themselves?
In a table courtesy of A.C. Holder, Pyramid Counseling Center, one can see that the eldest often plays the role of the “hero,” is successful and a leader-but often feels inadequate. The middle child/ren could either be lost children-quiet, shy and ill-at-ease, or the family scapegoats [whom I’ve referred to elsewhere as Identified Patients], in trouble, rebellious, craving attention but feeling unable to ask for it. Finally the youngest may be the cut-up or clown, generally happy-go-lucky, and I would add, not too guilt-ridden or concerned with his/her own impact on others.
And notice, after looking at the “titles” of each of these characters, that the “scapegoat” sounds very much like another character I’ve addressed in other articles: it’s just another name for the Identified Patient.
Seems like there just might be something to that old theory on birth order after all-and I still like how it speaks to my clients’ experiences in their families.