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Birth Order Traits: How to Parent Each Kid

Birth Order Traits: How to Parent Each Kid

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Updated on Feb 28, 2014

Your oldest child is an academic overachiever who generally looks for your approval. Your middle child is a laid-back athlete with a wide circle of friends who never seems to turn to you. Your youngest child is an adventurous soul who seems to have both parents wrapped around her little finger. When you look around, it seems like many families have similar configurations. Coincidence?

Research shows that people really do develop various characteristics based on their birth order—although there are definitely exceptions to the rule. According to Frank Sulloway, an adjunct psychology professor at the University of California/Berkeley, there are five reasons why birth order can have an impact on personality:

  • Differences in Parental Investment. Oldest children usually garner the most parental investment, followed by youngest siblings. Parental investment includes time, energy, attention, and even money. “Typically, middle children receive fewer resources from parents,” explains Sulloway. “They compensate by looking for support through peer groups.” Oldest children have a period of time during which they receive all of their parents’ attention before other siblings are born. Youngest children, on the other hand, may remain home after their older siblings have gone on to school or left the nest to catch up on parental investment.
  • Sibling Dominance Hierarchies. Oldest children tend to learn how to “take charge” more easily, while younger children tend to be followers and to pursue "low-power" strategies like bargaining. In the same vein, oldest kids might be more assertive in social situations, whereas younger siblings might try to make themselves more agreeable.
  • Niche Picking. According to Sulloway, siblings are like different species in nature in that they occupy different niches in the family. “One very important idea we have learned from evolutionary biology is that it generally pays to minimize competition,” Sulloway explains. “Species tend to diverge from one another so that they don’t consume the same resources. Siblings also diversify from one another in order to minimize competition, so as not to compete for same resources from parents.” Sulloway believes that niche picking is one of the most powerful of the five reasons birth order affects personality because it forces a child to choose his or her own way to excel—whether through athletics, academics, social prowess, fine arts, or any other field.
  • Deidentification. The concept of deidentification is similar to niche picking, but is more intentional. A kid might purposefully move to the opposite from a sibling's identity in order to feel more unique. He "deidentifies" by defining himself (his personality, interests, tastes, etc.) in contrary ways to his sibling.
  • Birth-order and Gender Stereotypes. Sometimes parents have preconceived notions of how a child of a certain gender or birth order is supposed to act. These preconceptions can shape a child’s self-perception as well, whether he seeks to fulfill or rebel against his parents' expectations.
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