birth orderBirth order is one of those interesting but gray areas in the study of human behavior where nature and nurture collide, and the temptation to explain rather than address can be considerable.

Understanding it, however, is no different than understanding anything else about your natural inclinations — especially when used for insight and not excuse-making.

Understanding birth order theory

Birth order theory first emerged late in the 19th Century, with Alfred Adler and Carl Jung leading the charge. Jung, specifically, argued that birth order left an “indelible impression on an individual’s style of life which is one’s habitual way of dealing with the tasks of friendship, love and work.”


The theory asserts that firstborn children, treated as royalty since birth, are essentially dethroned when second children come along — an action that impacts them forever. Firstborn children tend to be natural leaders and often high achievers. They are often perceived as  punctual, precise and perfection-oriented people who lack sensitivity to others.

Middle children

Middle children are often mythically viewed as the lost or forgotten children. Alternately classified as the youngest of the older children or the oldest of the younger children, middle children experience both worlds. They tend to be relational people, as eager to please others as they are to avoid confrontation.

Youngest children

Youngest children are viewed as spoiled, fun-loving extroverts with a short attention span. They often have the advantage of learning from older siblings who sometimes serve as surrogates or tutors and benefit by learning from those older siblings’ mistakes.

Birth order doesn’t predetermine the future

While the theories lend insight into parenting tendencies, their value is more in raising awareness and less in predestining one’s life.

Buying into birth order as the be-all, end-all explanation for personality and behavior is a disservice to everyone. It can impose unfair and unwarranted assumptions that influence one’s development and cause us to overlook others’ innate talents and abilities.

Society has changed dramatically since birth order theory introduced

Birth order theory is grounded in a society that existed a century ago and that has changed dramatically since. Today’s families are not only smaller but they’re also more likely to have larger age gaps between children. Additionally, gender expectations have blurred dramatically.

Now we know a number of factors — DNA, parents, teachers, religion — influence character development, and current research is finding that a child’s peer group has more influence than family.

Focus less on birth order and more on parenting

It’s OK for parents to acknowledge birth order as one of many influencing factors, along with family size, income, education and ethnicity, but they should keep their focus on providing love, support and encouragement to each member of the family. When it comes to success in relationships, careers and life in general, nurturing is the biggest determining factor of all.