Taking Stock of Birth-Order Studies


The oldest child is born to be a leader; the middle or second-born, a negotiator; and the youngest, a comedian.

Such stereotypes are typical when it comes to birth order in pop culture, and every sibling has probably considered his place in life in accordance with his place in his family. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. The study of birth order is constantly being questioned by researchers, psychologists and therapists. In fact, experts seem to fall into one of two camps when it comes to the subject; they either agree with birth-order summations or completely disagree pointing to other factors that cause siblings to act the way they do.

For parents who may be searching for answers or just curious about the subject, here’s a look at both sides of the birth-order issue.

Opposing Views
With more than 30 years of research on the subject of only children and one-child families, Toni Falbo, Ph.D., professor in educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, is considered the myth-buster when it comes to birth-order characteristics and how they pertain to a child’s outcome as an adult.

“People continue to think that birth order is important,” Falbo explains, “but other issues are far more important, including parenting styles,” when it comes to child development.

Often quoted in birth-order articles including the LA Times, Time magazine and Psychology Today, Falbo has claimed reading birth-order studies is like reading horoscopes.

“We do not talk about the cookie-cutter birth-order identities anymore,” she says. “We know that these stereotypes are not as important as they were years ago.”
Not according to child and family therapist Meri Wallace, MSW, LCSW, however, who is a licensed clinical social worker in the state of New York and author of Birth Order Blues.

Throughout her 20- plus years as a therapist, Wallace has seen and continues to see how birth order affects both children and adults within her practice.

“It became clear to me that there were patterns to how children behaved within their spot in the family,” she says, observing these same patterns in her adult practice as well. “These patterns kept appearing; patterns which powerfully affected a person’s life and really shaped how a person felt about themselves.”

Wallace decided to conduct an empirical study on birth order, which is the basis for her book. Setting out to interview siblings of every age, different genders, only children and twins, she wanted to establish that there are in fact emotional expectations evident in each birth-order type and provide parents with a guide to help them understand birth order better.

With her experience in working with families, she makes the point that birth order cannot be ignored. “It’s so clear how important it is,” Wallace says.

Parental Advice
For parents who are looking to birth order for parenting tips or to help with family-planning decisions, both sides can be beneficial.

Falbo advises parents to look at each child individually instead of focusing on their birth order.

“Effective parenting is parenting that takes into account each child’s unique characteristics,” she says. “Sometimes you will have a firstborn who is very shy and may not be a leader, for instance.”

Parents should not assume that the youngest will always act like a baby, Falbo adds; further explaining how so many of the birth-order ideas are based on stereotypes.

“A parent must try to teach each child to exercise their own strengths,” she continues, and hold back on making comparisons among siblings such as ‘Oh, I wish you were like your brother.’ A parent should promote a positive respect of caring for each other.

When it comes to competition among siblings, Falbo warns parents against it. Competition invariably sets up one child to be the “good one” and another, the “bad one,” creating a negative environment that affects a child in many ways.

Wallace, on the other hand, regards birth order to be a great tool for parents to use and encourages parents to intervene when they see a birth-order discrepancy play out. For example, a second-born child may be really upset when an older child is riding a two-wheel bicycle, but he cannot. A parent who understands birth order can address the child’s feelings of inadequacy based on his age, growth and safety instead of ignoring or negating his feelings.

“You must work with them [children],” Wallace says. “I don’t think you gloss over the issues but talk directly to the challenges of each birth order.”

Parents should realize that every child wants to be the best in their family, she explains, and while children don’t understand why they feel the way they do, a parent should acknowledge those feelings. For instance, the oldest child may feel that it isn’t fair that the youngest gets a lot of attention.

“Get the feelings out in the open and acknowledge them,” Wallace urges. “It’s a humane approach to family life.”

Significant Studies
Birth order research can be traced to the late 19th century with Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler who first theorized that birth order influences personality. He claimed that firstborns become “dethroned” when a second child is born, while the youngest or only child is often spoiled. Both scenarios leave lasting effects on children.

Contemporary studies include psychologist Frank Sulloway’s 1997 book, Born to Rebel, which took an evolutionary, or Darwinian, view of the effects of birth order. Sulloway looked to competition among siblings for both parental attention and resources, and while his theory points to a different motivator than Adler’s, his conclusion on birth-order identities are similar.

Like Falbo, however, many psychologists today strongly disagree with these assumptions and sociologist Dalton Conley, author of the 2004 book, The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, argues that birth order alone does not determine a person’s success in life. He proposes that parental expectations, financial issues, death, divorce and other factors affect a person’s success more than birth order.

More than likely, the debate over birth order will continue for generations to come, and parents will be waiting for the results, just as many wait to read their daily horoscopes.

Salwa Choucair is a San Antonio freelance writer, the mother of two and the youngest of four.

Adler, Alfred. Translated by Colin Brett. Understanding Human Nature. Hazelden Foundation. 1998.
Conley, Dalton. The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. Pantheon. 2004.
Falbo, Toni. The Single-Child Family. Guilford Press. 1984.
Sulloway, Frank. Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives. Pantheon. 1997.
Wallace, Meri. Birth Order Blues: How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet the Challenges of Birth Order. Owl Books. 1999.


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