Families are complex entities, particularly in modern times. They are not only characterised by the group as a whole, but by the individual matrix of relationships within them. According to some researchers, where you fit into this mini-network defines a lot about you, your personality, and even your life choices. According to others, the ‘science’ of this theory is patchy at best. The phrase ‘family constellation’ (from the title of psychologist Walter Toman’s 1961 book on birth order theory) refers to the structure of a family: the dynamics of the individual relationships; birth order and number of siblings; the genders of the family members; the blending of families; spacing of children; and so on. While the most important relationship within a family is widely agreed to be the parent-child relationship, there is increasing interest among researchers into the influence of siblings on our development. Psychologist Alfred Adler was one of the first to use his studies to show the significance of birth order and sibling relationships in shaping personalities. More recently, scientists such as Professor Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois, have conducted extensive studies into the topic and found that it is very hard to quantify the perceived differences. Either way, it is impossible to reject outright the notion that the skills we learn through our siblings inevitably sculpt our adult behaviour. We learn much from them about how we should behave among our peers in school, university, the office, with our spouse and ultimately, how we should bring up our own children.
Sibling relationships are some of the most enduring we will experience throughout life. They define our formative experiences and test our early social and cognitive skills. People with good relationships with brothers and sisters throughout their lives report lower levels of depression, and greater life satisfaction, because of the emotional protection that a close sibling bond can offer in the outside world. Authentic relationships with our siblings can be full of fun, friction, emotion, intimacy, conflict, warmth, respect, rivalry, and (hopefully) most of all, love. Even when siblings are at loggerheads, there is an underlying awareness that the relationship is permanent, which helps teach us conflict resolution, patience, how to manage social tensions, how to conduct friendships, and handle ourselves in group situations. Even with the most difficult early relations between siblings, warmth can develop later on, due to the sheer number of shared experiences. If we are to believe the stereotypes of birth order, some tension between the siblings, and how their parents treat them, is just part of what makes up their characters.
The stereotypes of the characteristics of first-born children are mainly derived from the fact that they have their parents’ sole attention for the first stage of their life, until a second child comes along. As a result, they are said to often have superior language skills, as their primary interlocutors at this time are adults. They are also often the children that their parents are most strict with, because they are essentially the experiment, and are therefore the recipient of much parental anxiety that may ease by the time parents have more children. This supposedly results in first-borns feeling more pressure to behave conservatively, in order to please their parents, and to become ambitious and motivated (and often indeed feel crushed) by this pressure. As more children come along, first-borns will inevitably act in loco parentis at least occasionally, which means they become comfortable with responsibility, assuming authoritative roles, and acting like mini-adults. They may exhibit nurturing and teaching characteristics.
The behaviour of the middle child is said to be characterised by ‘de-identification’: the idea that in order to compete for parents’ precious attention and resources, a younger (usually middle child) is likely to develop an opposing personality to his older sibling. This is thought to be because they are unlikely to win on the same ground as their older sibling, due to him or her being at a higher stage of mental and physical development, so they must find new activities to excel in, and gain their parents’ attention. This can manifest itself in difficult behaviour, for example, if the older sibling is exceptionally academic or conformist, or can be as simple as them choosing a different sport or musical instrument. In a middle child, this is said to manifest itself in the most varied characteristics of all birth positions, they can be more rebellious, and are often the most sociable outside the family fold.
Because they cannot compete on strength or knowledge for a number of years, youngest children are often funny and charming and have keen social skills, helping them to win their place among their older siblings. They are said to be less bothered about status or power, having had to play catch-up for most of their lives. They have the advantage of being able to see the consequences of the paths that their older siblings have chosen, and also benefit from a more laissez-faire attitude of their parents, who by this point probably worry less about their parenting skills.
Only children are said to exhibit both traits of the first-born and the last-born child. They often earn more money, are academically successful, mature for their age, are comfortable being the centre of attention, and happy on their own.
Of course, many of these stereotypes are clumsy and irrelevant, but occasionally some of them are confirmed by research. Recently, in a study led by scientist Feifei Bu at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, it was claimed that first-born girls are statistically more likely to be the most academically successful and ambitious. It is often cited that half of US presidents are first-born sons, while only a four are last-borns. Psychology Professor William Ickes, Ph.D., at the University of Texas at Arlington found in his research that children who grow up with opposite sex siblings find interactions with the opposite sex easier later on.
Children’s development and characteristics are also found to be affected by gender and the spacing between children. Dr Kevin Leman, a psychologist and author who has researched birth order since the 1960s, found the effect of gender to be so strong that if a girl is born into a family of boys in whatever position, she is likely to exhibit characteristics usually associated with a first-born. Similarly, if a second child is of the opposite gender to the first child, they are likely to also exhibit first-born qualities. Simply defining our children by the stereotypes that are associated with birth order alone therefore gives us an incomplete picture. Roberta M Gilbert in her book The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, indicates that there are actually eleven significant birth order positions that denote certain characteristics:
- Oldest brother of brothers
- Youngest brother of brothers
- Oldest brother of sisters
- Youngest brother of sisters
- Male only child
- Oldest sister of sisters
- Youngest sister of sisters
- Oldest sister of brothers
- Youngest sister of brothers
- Female only child
(Note that middle children are not included as they are likely to be closer to one or other of the above categories). If we add spacing (the age differences between siblings), the age adopted children join the family, family size, or the blending of families to the equation, things get even more complex, and even further away from the idea that birth order stereotypes mean anything when taken on their own.
From all of this varied research, one thing is clear. Our family constellation affects us in complex and differing ways. We may not adhere to the direct stereotypes so often ascribed to ‘oldest’, ‘middle’, ‘youngest’, or ‘only’ children, and we might choose to try and reject the influence of birth order on our personality as crude and inaccurate. However, our birth position, when mixed with the influence of our gender, the amount of input we get from our parents, the age of our other siblings, whether we have step-siblings, twins, or much older or younger siblings, as well as the size of our family, leaves an indelible mark on our characters. Our family structure is the first and largest influence on our behaviour before we step into the outside world. With our own children, whether we stick to what we experienced from our parents and siblings, or whether we branch out and bring them up in an opposite way, we are no doubt acting under the influence of this constellation.