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Deciphering Birth Order

How much, if at all, do you think birth order affects your children’s personalities? How about how it affects the way you parent? You might be surprised. Read on to find out some new perspectives on birth order and family dynamics.

When the first born cries you just don’t know, all is new,” says Christina Clemann a mother of three children living in Aylmer, Quebec. “You’re more relaxed with number two. And number three? Oh my god, she cries and you don’t even react. It’s like, you have a baby! Maybe you should go and check on her?” Christina’s eldest daughter, Sara, is eleven. She’s a natural leader, she’s responsible and she takes care of her youngest sibling, Vanessa (4), with ease.

Tyler (7) is in the middle. Through no fault of his own (or his parents for that matter) Tyler has a natural isolation in the family. “The middle child is the most squeezed out,” according to parenting expert and psychotherapist Alyson Schafer. “Every position has its strengths and weaknesses, but middle children have the highest likelihood of discouragement.” The middle child struggles to find their place because they’re neither the leader of the pack, nor are they the cutie- pie baby. In Tyler’s case, however, being the only boy might affect his “birth order” characteristics. You’re probably wondering how gender and birth order are related? Schafer explains that, contrary to what some theorists say, birth order is not as much about chronology as it is about personality positioning. Each sibling in a family is trying to carve out their place in the “family constellation,” as Schafer describes. Their age, relationship to their siblings and how their parents parent, help children determine their individual role, which is a vital part of growing up, according to Schafer. Since differentiation plays such a big part, a middle child who is one of three girls would face a greater challenge than an only boy who is automatically different because of his gender. Whether you buy into birth order theory or not, there are parts of it that might pique your interest.

Have a read and find out the five things you’ve probably never heard about birth order:

Firstborns may have a natural knack for leadership, responsibility, following rules. And yes, it is true that most U.S. presidents are firstborn children, HOWEVER, you’ve got to give them a break! When the table needs to be set or the vacuum needs to be put away, parents often assign the task to whomever presents the path of least resistance, which often means the eldest. Christina admits that she’s guilty of this. “I’ve noticed that we expect a lot and I think sometimes we have to back off,” says Christina of her eldest daughter Sara. Sara explained her role of being the eldest in a separate interview: “I always have to make sure that I am setting a good example for [my brother and sister] and sometimes it is hard to remember.” This mature attitude is what makes it so difficult to back off of your first-born child. They’re capable of helping so it’s hard to remember that they also crave time to just be a kid.

Middles have a love/ hate relationship with the law. Studies have found that young offenders are most likely to be middle born children. (Family Size and Birth Order of Young Offenders, by David Biles and Dennis Chalinger.) Schafer has found similar statistics correlating middle children and crime. However, Schafer also works regularly with law firms and notes a pattern of middle children working for the law as well. This dichotomous phenomenon is explained by the idea that middle children think life is unfair; they don’t get the same kind of attention as the oldest or the youngest. Their concern with fairness can lead middles in one of two directions: “They’re either going to get their nose out of joint and say ‘life isn’t fair’ and go down a bad path or they’re going to say ‘life isn’t fair and I’m going to be the one to fix it,’” explains Schafer.

If differentiating yourself and finding a role within the family constellation is what birth order is all about, big families must really notice a difference between each child, right? Well, not exactly. In bigger families children tend to identify as clusters more than they do as individuals, according to Schafer. Being from a big family will affect personalities a lot more than the order in which an individual is placed among their siblings. “If you’re one of ten kids, that alone says that you never had any individual parental one-on-one time,” says Schafer. So the way each parent treats each individual child will happen less frequently and therefore shape them (in terms of birth order) less.

Cultural expectations In some cultures where there is a big divide between gender based expectations, you can find a family dynamic that has two “first- borns.” Schafer explains; “In an Italian household let’s say, what is expected of an eldest female is so different that the parents are going to parent differently around it and [a boy and girl] will share that eldest position quite fine because it’s being reinforced by cultural expectations.”

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you probably identify with the child that is the same birth order as you more than you realize. I asked Christina this and she says she can be extra-sensitive to her youngest daughter’s situation. “What I remember about being the youngest is that [my sisters] would close the door, blast the music and I would sit outside the door,” explains Christina “And I see that with Vanessa.” Though Christina respects her older children’s need for privacy and time with their friends, she’s always sure to organize something to do with her youngest daughter during those times so that the familiar feeling of exclusion doesn’t bubble up.

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