Birth order theory attributes traits to each sibling, siblings shape family dynamics and life beyond one’s childhood home
Upper school English teacher Antonia Moran was in eighth grade. Her brother was in seventh. Moran was making egg salad while her brother was changing the T.V. channel — it annoyed her. Her brother ran over to Moran, grabbed the egg salad bowl and ran around the house with the bowl in hand. Moran eventually caught up and grabbed one side of the bowl, while her brother clutched to the other side. They pulled the bowl back and forth. And then, finally, the bowl couldn’t take it any longer and the egg salad spilled all over the floor. Silence. The arguing stopped and they started to laugh. Everything they were annoyed about seemed to suddenly disappear. Moran said this pattern seemed to always happen when she and her brother got in fights.
It is often said that siblings can be your best friend and greatest enemy at the same time. Despite being one another’s built-in best friends, rifts between siblings can be devastating, lasting days, weeks and in some cases, a lifetime. Many aspects come into play when analyzing sibling bonds; however, birth order, parents and outside relationships play the biggest roles.
The birth order theory was first posited by Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychologist that lived in the early 1900s. Adler was the first to establish psychology as an individual study and also produced many theories on the inferiority complex and individualism as well as sibling relationships and the birth order theory, which suggests that each child’s position in the family (oldest, middle or youngest) affects certain aspects of their life. Adler believed that things from one’s career path to relationships with other people were heavily influenced by their place in the family, creating stereotypes for each sibling after he studied them long enough.
The firstborn tends to have the following characteristics: Natural leader, high achiever, bossy, organized, rule follower and sometimes, a know-it-all. After basking in the spotlight of their parents, firstborns must feel the sting of that spotlight being ripped away with the arrival of a sibling, which is often a source of animosity between first and second borns. Afterwards, they take on the role of “mini parents,” stepping in to help with the younger kids, which is how most of the fore-mentioned characteristics begin to develop.
“Being the oldest is all about setting an example for your younger siblings,” junior Jake Lewis said. “Being the oldest of [eight] is definitely a lot of added pressure, but it’s also really fun to be like a parent and be able to teach them things and watch them grow.”
Next come the middle children who are typically flexible, easy-going, independent, social, secretive and have strong negotiating skills. However, “middle child syndrome,” the feeling of being overlooked or ignored because of being a middle child, is commonly felt amongst these children, and can therefore lead to some being highly rebellious in an attempt to get attention from their parents. Senior Cleo Neuhoff has two older brothers and a younger brother, making her the middle child and the only girl in a family of boys; however, Neuhoff said she doesn’t mind it.
“I enjoy being the middle child because my parents got to use the first two boys to figure everything out, so they are a bit more laid back when it comes to me,” Neuhoff said. “I know that most middle children would say they feel overlooked, but I think being the only girl in a family of boys certainly helps. I don’t know if the situation would have been the same if I had been a boy.”
Over the years, the youngest children have gained a reputation for being the most spoiled children with the most freedom. They are also very outgoing, creative, competitive, funny and at times, self-centered. Youngest children tend to be coddled the most by their parents and can get annoyed at being treated as the baby of the family their whole life.
“Being the youngest of four, I benefit from the life experience each of my siblings has gathered and passed on to me,” junior Lili Kelly said. “But it comes at a price when, at the dinner table for instance, my opinion isn’t taken as seriously as my older siblings’ because I don’t have that ‘life experience.’”
Finally, the only child. Being the only object of their parent’s affections, only children are characterized as being mature, private, sensitive, dependable, demanding and close to their parents. While they might not have siblings, being the only child affects one just as much as those with many siblings. Only children are also known to enjoy being around adults rather than children their own age and therefore tend to be considered old-souls.
“Being an only child has taught me a lot of independence, and I feel as I grow up, being my parents’ only child has allowed me to gain more life knowledge, and I appreciate all the attention,” junior Kathryn Sullivan said. “I have always felt I have matured a lot faster than most of my friends with siblings.”
According to psychologist Ashley Kuehne ‘93, the biggest impact birth order plays in sibling relationships comes down to alliances within the family, however according to a Feb. 17 poll of 131 students, only 30 percent of students say they get along with one sibling more than another. Kuehne says that certain characteristics displayed by each sibling in the family, along with those of the parents, can attract or draw other members of the family, creating unspoken alliances within one household.
“The firstborn often becomes a surrogate parent and feels like they need to correct their younger siblings, remind them of the rules and sometimes tell on their younger siblings,” Kuehne said. “So they are more of an adult or parent figure, or can be, which can often pit their younger siblings against them. The middle child is often referred to as the forgotten child, but they’re very much the peacemakers. They don’t want a lot of fights, and they try to just keep the peace. So they might more likely be mediating between the youngest or the oldest and trying to keep things peaceful.”
Pre-Kindergarten teacher Jana Jeffrey, who is the third of four children, said that her ally in the family was her younger sister.
“Me and my younger sister are so similar and alike that we’ve always been naturally drawn to each other,” Jeffrey said. “We would get into little fights here and there just because we were so similar, but we would mostly just gang up on my older sister because she’s very different than we are. My younger sister and I are super fun and outgoing while my older sister cares more about the following and enforcing the rules.”
The various characteristics of each child coupled with the need for parental attention and approval can be a strong factor in many sibling rifts. Often, children find themselves jealous over the characteristics of their other siblings that are most admired by their parents; for instance, the middle child might be jealous of how proud their parents are of the oldest sibling and their academic prowess and leadership skills, while the oldest sibling is probably jealous of the lack of pressure put on the middle child and how much more lenient the parents are with them.
“As therapists, we like to look more at how a child’s environment can shape their characteristics, and I think the parents have a lot to do with that,” Kuehne said. “How they treat each child, the either spoken or unspoken rules, if one child is treated differently than the other and which roles each child has that are in alignment with the parents are going to feed that.”
Growing up, it is arguably the goal of each child in the family to be the favorite of one, if not both, of their parents, which can create a lot of tension and struggle between siblings. If one child becomes the obvious favorite of one parent, it can cause the other children to be detached and more distant from that parent, as they believe nothing they do will ever measure up to what the favorite sibling does. It also, in turn, can cause resentment between the siblings. That special treatment and the obvious difference in how one sibling is cared for is oftentimes the root of many sibling rifts and rivalries, as the others feel it’s unfair they are treated as less than.
“A major cause of fighting amongst siblings is a lack of connection,” family coach Kim Griffith said. “When one or more children is not feeling seen, heard or valued, it is most likely a reflection of how their parents are acting, and it is very common for a child to react in a negative way.”
Jeffrey notes that she can still feel overlooked or ignored as an adult like she did when she was younger.
“My little sister always gets all the attention,” Jeffrey said. “Even now, as an adult, the six of us could be at a dinner table, and if I got up and walked away, my family wouldn’t notice. There have been times that I’ve left the house to have my family call me an hour later and say ‘oh you left?’ and I’m like, ‘I left an hour ago’… and I think that is one of the reasons why I love attention so much now, because I was not paid as much attention as my siblings growing up. Obviously, my parents are awesome, and I totally love them, but I think they did pay more attention to the oldest and the youngest, so the middles kind of figured that out on their own.”
Growing up, Moran said she fit the oldest-child stereotype; she was worried about her studies, more serious and constantly quarreling with her younger brother.
“We fought a lot growing up,” Moran said. “We would always sit at opposite ends of a table to do our homework, and I would always diligently do my homework, and him, not so much. He would just enjoy bugging me so he’d make these funny sounds with his mouth, like he’s eating peanut butter or something, just to annoy me.”
Many siblings become closer as adults, leaving petty arguments and immaturity behind with their childhood. Moran’s case is the same, as her and her brother became close during college.
“When I went to college, he visited me a couple times, and I remember really enjoying his company for the first time ever,” Moran said. “He’s really funny and entertaining, but he just drove me crazy as a kid. I ended up at UCLA and he went to USC, so we’d see each other a lot and just started to really enjoy each other’s company. I think it changed because he used to be an annoying little brother, and then I think he tried to be more mature.”
Moran now acknowledges that her relationship with her brother and her three sons’ relationships with each other mirror Adler’s stereotypes.
“With my brother and I, I was always working really hard on school and stuff of that nature, but my brother wouldn’t be bothered if he did his homework or not, so he was definitely a bit more lax than I was,” Moran said. “But with my kids, I find it crazy how much their stereotypes match up. My oldest is really type-A and a little more serious, my second one is the pleaser and a little more laid back and goes more with the flow and my youngest is Mr. Happy-Go Lucky; he can just yo-yo for hours and is just so much more easy going. My second child is also very often the peace-keeper between the oldest and youngest, and I don’t want my kids to feel like they have to fit these specific identities, but that really does seem to be a big part of their personalities.”