Child Birth Order (in Psychology)

This article is all about the generalizations that psychologists have made about child birth order. They’re not set in stone, but they’re something to think about as you reflect on your personality versus the personality of your siblings, step-siblings, or friends! 

Is Birth Order Important? 

The way a child is raised has a significant impact on the person they grow up to be later on. A child’s birth order can impact how a parent raises them or how much attention is given to them. These are generalizations based on the work of many psychologists. 

Psychologists have looked at data from children to see whether or not birth order affects what trait a person has or what they grow up to be. Many findings show strong correlations between, say, good grades and being the oldest child. Or they observe that middle children get significantly less attention than their older or younger siblings. These answers aren’t set in stone, especially because a lot plays into a person’s personality: upbringing, gender, culture life events, etc.! Some people believe that generational differences may also change how child birth order affects personality. Although you may find some relatable traits in this article, know that birth order ultimately does not determine who you are.

Only Child Characteristics

Before we talk about birth order, let’s talk about what it means to be an only child. Again, you might have heard some of these characteristics before. There is an age-old stereotype of only children: they are spoiled or self-centered. Not having siblings to grow up with means that they are used to the attention from parents. There is less opportunity to share the spotlight or other resources. 

indifferent only child

But this is not the only way that psychologists describe only children. They also recognize that less time with other siblings may reduce the amount of time spent with other children. On family road trips or vacations, they may be the only child present. Outside of school or neighborhood play, the child might only be interacting with adults.

What does this say about a child’s personality? Psychologists believe it encourages the only child to grow up faster. They become more mature and conscientious. This can be a benefit, but it can also be a hindrance. The only child may find themselves distancing from children and refusing to cooperate. This pattern of behavior throughout school can be troubling. 

Oldest Child Characteristics

The oldest child is an only child for a short period of time, so there is a possibility that they take on some of these traits. Often, their world changes significantly when another child is added into the picture. 

This can result in a variety of traits. An oldest child may become a people-pleaser and a perfectionist. They strive for attention and validation, something that they might have felt neglected of when their sibling arrived. Perfectionism may also come from a parent’s style when raising the oldest child. Parents are generally more cautious when they have their first child. They don’t want to screw them up, after all! That level of caution may rub off on the child. 

Perfectionism and high expectations may also result in an oldest child being a natural leader. They are often given the task of “leading” their siblings or caring for them as they grow up. These tasks come naturally, especially as a child when age has a serious impact on someone’s authority. Oldest children are also likely to be organized, responsible, and likely to obey the rules. Again, not all traits are necessarily “good.” The oldest child is also likely to be more “bossy” and less flexible than their younger siblings.  

Middle Child Characteristics

Unlike older siblings, middle children grow up being the “baby” of the family. They are the youngest child first. Parents will dote on them, but they also have an older sibling to dote on them. A middle child is also likely to model after their older sibling for a period of time.

But that all changes once the younger sibling comes into the picture. The youngest child becomes the baby and the oldest child is still in charge. What is the middle child’s role? 

This question can often shape the middle child’s personality. They are fighting for attention. Their older sibling is able to do more than them, and the youngest sibling requires more care. So the middle child needs to act as a people-pleaser or a peacemaker to earn validation and attention from their parents. This role often follows them throughout their life.

Striving for the attention of their parents may also cause a middle child to act out and be rebellious. 

Note here that there are many ways to be a middle child. As a family has 4, 5, or 6 children, the middle child’s “role” in the family may change. 

Youngest Child Characteristics 

The youngest child is, and always will be, the baby of the family. This role can be very beneficial for the child. After parents have two or three children, they understand what is and isn’t good for development. They know that letting their kid out late or allowing them to do what “the big kids do” won’t harm them. Often, the youngest child has many more privileges than the older children. 

Having extra privileges can be a good thing or a bad thing. Youngest children can be very charming and likeable. They take risks and don’t mind letting loose when it comes to rules. And who wouldn’t like to be spoiled if they are used to it growing up? 

Another characteristic of youngest children is that they can be competitive. Even though they are getting a lot of attention from their parents, they aren’t able to do as much as their older siblings. This may lead youngest children to work extra hard, be competitive, or seek attention in other ways. 

Can Personality Traits Change? 

Some of this information may feel relatable. You might have also heard some things that don’t really match up with the way that you or your siblings behave. That’s okay! It doesn’t mean that your family is strange or that the research is untrue. 

a child aging into an adult

Not even psychologists can agree on what birth order means for someone’s personality. While some studies show that an only child is likely to be self-centered and spoiled, others focus on an only child’s ability to be a leader and a perfectionist. Both of these things can exist, but the traits that are “most likely to be true” may vary from study to study or psychologist to psychologist. 

All of these studies show a correlation, not causation. These studies don’t always account for other factors. Families with only two children (and no “middle” child) may also look different than what is generally understood by psychologists. So do “blended” families that are made up of half- or step-siblings. 

Other factors that influence personality include:

  • Where you went to school 
  • The culture you grew up in 
  • Age differences 
  • Any special talents or traits that might have put you on a pedestal 
  • Economic situation 

The list goes on and on. Don’t take these assessments too personally if you don’t think they apply to you. Live the life you want to live and strive to be the person that you want to be!

Practical Psychology

Practical Psychology began as a collection of study material for psychology students in 2016, created by a student in the field. It has since evolved into an online blog and YouTube channel providing mental health advice, tools, and academic support to individuals from all backgrounds. With over 2 million YouTube subscribers, over 500 articles, and an annual reach of almost 12 million students, it has become one of the most popular sources of psychological information.

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