Alfred Adler, founder of the theory known as Individual Psychology, first introduced the concept of birth order. Adler identified characteristics of different ordinal positions, but he also emphasized the importance of psychological birth order. Adler believed that a family member’s perception of his or her position within the family of origin may or may not match the actual ordinal position. For example, in a family with three siblings in which the oldest becomes chronically ill, the second born may hold typical first-born traits.
Each child’s personality develops in relation to specifics of the sibling group. Or, in the case of the only child, the absence of siblings clearly impacts development. Adler saw variables such as family atmosphere, gender, and spacing among siblings as significant in the development of an individual’s perceptions about birth order position. Individual Psychologists still identify psychological birth order position as well as actual position as fundamental in the development of a child’s personality. The White–Campbell Psychological Birth Order Inventory was developed specifically to help clinicians and researchers identify psychological birth order position in relation to actual ordinal position.
Since the time Alfred Adler first introduced the concept of birth order, many clinicians and researchers (some of whom are not specifically related to Individual Psychology) also have influenced the development of this concept. Researchers have examined relationships between birth order and variables such as personality traits, achievement and intelligence, and interpersonal relationships. Additionally, the birth order concept has received media attention and become a popular subject in areas such as parenting education, personal growth, and intimate relationships. For example, Kevin Leman has written several popular books on the birth order concept including the relationship between birth order and selection of a mate.
While many professionals find the birth order concept interesting to use clinically and in research, specific research findings are seemingly inconclusive. Some wonder, then, Is birth order a myth or is it science? Statistically significant findings may only be difficult to interpret because of the phenomenological nature of the concept. Using psychological birth order or information about an individual’s family atmosphere in relation to that person’s actual ordinal position may lead to the most accurate interpretation of the meaning of birth order. For example, family dynamics to be explored that have been identified as influencing perceptions about a child’s place in the family include (1) parenting styles, (2) death of a sibling, (3) miscarriage, (4) large age gaps between siblings (e.g., more than 3 years), (5) siblings with disabilities, (6) gender, and (7) divorce and step-siblings.
Helping professionals often use birth order in terms of conceptualizing, understanding, and forming insight regarding clients’ lifestyles or views of themselves in the world. Researcher Alan Stewart cautions the use of birth order characteristics in clinical judgment, indicating that information regarding birth order taken out of context can lead to inappropriate conclusions. From a clinical perspective, it is helpful to learn how clients perceived their position in the family of origin and how that relates to current concerns presented in therapy. Individual Psychologists believe that the family of origin is a child’s first opportunity to see him or herself in a social context. Within the family, children develop personality characteristics as well as specific social skills.
Some general characteristics have been observed as typical birth order traits. Any personality trait can have both positive and negative aspects. For instance, a high achiever is often successful in certain areas of life but may suffer from excessive anxiety. Similarly, any birth order position may create a place for strengths of character as well as weaknesses. Again, the birth order position is phenomenological, and many variables exist. However, clinicians and researchers have identified general patterns of the following birth order positions.
Only children tend to be outgoing, mature, and verbally skilled. They are often surrounded by adults and therefore typically seek approval. They also may tend to expect attention, or even prefer to be the center of attention. However, being an only child can sometimes feel lonely, as there are often fewer opportunities to practice peer social skills. It makes sense that when there is only one child, that child receives all the adult attention and resources of that family. In fact, early writings about birth order position describe the only child as at risk for being overindulged or pampered. As Alan Stewart noted (2004), current research contradicts these more negative stereotypes.
Firstborn children are often the example of responsible behavior for the other siblings. As the oldest in the family they typically take on the characteristics of perfection and high achievement. Firstborns tend to be characterized as organized, serious, and even bossy. As these children develop socially, they may have only a few close friends. Firstborns are thought to be more competitive and often thrive in leadership positions.
The second-born child enters the family in competition with the older sibling. Often, the second-born will develop skills or interests opposite of the older sibling in an attempt to find his or her sense of belonging within the family. Second-born children tend to be very social, competitive, and hard-working, frequently in an attempt to compete or even overthrow the older sibling. They are often less serious and less focused on academic achievement, especially when the firstborn has already taken that position.
Middle children often feel squeezed between an older and a younger sibling, and are therefore usually concerned with fairness. Because of their middle position, these individuals are sensitive to injustices. Middle children may have more difficulty developing a sense of belonging and significance within the family. Because of these individuals’ unique position within the family, middle children tend to be either skilled negotiators or instigators.
The youngest child in the family is typically referred to as the “baby” and never experiences feelings of being dethroned. These individuals are usually charming and socially outgoing. Youngest have the advantage of observing and learning from the successes and failures of older siblings. Being the youngest child in a family presents an opportunity to continually be pampered by older siblings and parents, thereby developing a lack of independence or self-reliance, or to use their position to excel.
Again, while these general birth order characteristics have been observed, it is important to emphasize that family atmosphere dynamics greatly influence individual perceptions about position in the family. Still, recognizing birth order positions and typical patterns provides a greater understanding of human development. The concept of psychological birth order, which expands the ordinal position concept, enhances this understanding.
- Adler, (1928). Characteristics of the first, second, and third child. Children: The Magazine for Parents, 5, 14.
- Alfred Adler (n.d.). Classical Adlerian psychology. Retrieved from http://ourworld.compuserve.com/home- pages/hstein/hompage.htm
- Campbell, , White, J., & Stewart, A. (1991). The relationship of psychological birth order to actual birth order. Individual Psychology, 47, 380–391.
- Kevin Leman, http://www.drleman.com
- Rodgers, J. , Cleveland, H. H., van den Oord, E., & Rowe, D. C. (2000). Resolving the debate over birth order, family size, and intelligence. American Psychologist, 55, 599–615.
- Stewart, E. (2004). Can knowledge of client birth order bias clinical judgment? The Journal of Counseling & Development, 82, 167–176.