Listen to this episode

Birth Order

Air Date: 10/19/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.netNot too long ago, I sat and talked with a mom and dad who were concerned about the amount of arguing and fighting their two daughters were doing. I had met both girls and talked with them together; they certainly knew how to push each other's buttons and like most kids, they argued over the remote control and the telephone. But the amount of bickering didn't seem extreme to me; they seemed like normal siblings. Still, mom and dad were frustrated and worried. So we began exploring a bit, and an interesting fact turned up. This mother and father had both been only children. They'd never lived with siblings, and never had to compete for their parents' time or attention. Because there was no fighting in their families, their daughters' constant squabbles were troubling and they didn't know how to cope. It's been said that each child is born into a different family. It makes sense if you think about it. Where we land in our families can have a strong influence on how we see the world and each other. Family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir referred to this as the "family constellation," but most people just call it "birth order." Your birth order whether you're the oldest, middle, youngest, or an only child has a strong influence on the decisions you make about what you need to do to find belonging and significance and to get what you need in your family. While birth order doesn't predict a child's personality, abilities, or behavior, it does affect the way he sees himself and you. For instance, firstborn children are the first to arrive in their families. They receive all of their parents' attention and love and quickly become used to being the center of the universe. Firstborn children are often conscientious, achievement-oriented, quick to learn language, and motivated to succeed after all, they spent their early years in a world populated by adults, want adult approval, and often share adult priorities. Parents usually expect oldest children to be more responsible, and they sometimes become the "guinea pigs" as their parents learn parenting skills. Youngest children are the "babies." One proud four-year-old told me, "We get the most toys and stuff!" Youngest children have lots of people around to pay attention to them; they are often charming and people-oriented, and may be very good at getting other people to do things for them and to give them what they want. Not surprisingly, they're often slower to talk than firstborns. By the time they arrive, the rules in the family have usually relaxed and parents have lightened up a bit, so their siblings may perceive them as "spoiled." Youngest children may also be in a hurry to "catch up" and have the privileges and abilities their older siblings have sometimes before they're ready to handle them. Middle children sometimes feel lost in the family shuffle and turn to peers or siblings for belonging and encouragement. One researcher found that middle children have the fewest pictures in their families' albums. Middle children often gravitate towards interests and abilities that haven't already been staked out by the kids who got there first. For instance, if an oldest child is interested in academics or music, the nextborn will prefer gymnastics or insect-collecting. Only children have much in common with firstborns, but they may struggle with social skills. They may find it hard to share and to initiate conversations and relationships. There are some interesting permutations in birth order, too. If your children are more than five years apart, it's like having two firstborns. And if you have been a single parent and then remarry, your children's birth order may get abruptly shuffled. The boy who was an only child may become the "baby" in his new family (with a resulting loss of privileges and entitlement), or a girl who was the oldest, most admired child may wind up somewhere in the middle of a clump of kids. Some kids have one birth order position at dad's house and another at mom's. Confusing, isn't it? Why bother with birth order? Well, like so many aspects of parenting, the more information you have, the more you may understand about why your children do what they do. And it's always easier to change unacceptable behavior when you understand the beliefs behind it. Take a moment sometime soon and think about your own birth order, and that of your spouse or partner. How did your place in your family affect you? Have your siblings made different decisions about what "works" in life, based on their experiences in your family? And what about your children? You may find it interesting to talk with them sometime about their feelings: what does the oldest think about his position? The youngest? Curiosity and genuine interest can give you clues about who your children are and how they see their world. And that can only help you get along better together. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.