Other Factors That Influence Development

Other factors are at play too. Each child enters at a different spot in the timeline of the family. Parents get older, sometimes wiser, sometimes more or less stressed. The economics of the family may change for better or worse. There may be more or less extended family around to help out. Some families favor one gender over the other. Sometimes there is mysterious favoritism for one child over the others. Sad events like a serious illness, substance abuse, or family violence, and celebratory events like a move to a more spacious home, sudden improvement of family finances, or a chance to go to a better school all also affect the developing personality of our children.

None of the choices kids make is conscious, of course. Initially kids are simply reacting to the people and the situation around them. A child needs to be noticed and to be taken care of. Some kind of uniqueness is what engages other members of the family and guarantees a spot. One of our inborn survival skills is an acute power of observation. As the other people in the family react to the children’s reactions, the kids figure out what works and what doesn’t.

The following is only one example of how the situation and therefore the possibilities for each child might change in a middle American family.

John and Jane Doe have been married for three years, following a four-year courtship. Even though they are struggling financially and are living in a tiny apartment, they really want a child and are delighted when their son arrives. Both have jobs but they are lucky that John’s mother lives nearby and is happy to provide daycare.

This couple has read all the books. They read to little Johnny Jr. They play classical music. Grandma isn’t the type to actively play with him but she spends hours cuddled up with him, doing puzzles and reading books. By the time he is 3, he knows his numbers and alphabet. The household is quiet and organized. Johnny figures out that the way to belong in this family is to be quiet, to enjoy learning, and, because grandma is older and both parents are so busy, to be independent in his play.

Enter little brother Mikey. The family is doing better financially and moves into a house in a neighborhood with lots of kids. Dad works long hours during the week but is committed to giving the boys lots of his time on weekends. Mom has a job in a family-friendly company. After an eight-week maternity leave, she enrolls both kids in the company’s daycare. Grandma visits often and continues her special relationship with John Jr.

What is the most obvious place for Mikey? He’s used to competing with other babies for time and attention at daycare so a good guess is that he will be noisier and rowdier. He may decide that big brother has the academic world wrapped up so he will assert his uniqueness by being more social and more capable in rough-and-tumble play with other kids. If, however, the family places a very high value on academics, he may assert his uniqueness by letting his brother be the star in one area while he excels in another. (It’s not at all uncommon to find families where there is one historian and one mathematician. I do know of one family where all four kids became doctors but each has his or her own specialty.)

Enter the third-born, this time a girl named Barbie. Mikey feels squeezed. He doesn’t get the special privileges of being the oldest, nor does he get the special attention for being the cute baby girl. The boys have to share a room for the first time. Being so different, it’s hard for them to get along. Both are mad that this little interloper has made life more difficult.

Meanwhile, Barbie has two older, more capable guys ahead of her. Since she can’t be as big or as strong, she must develop other ways to be noticed. She may assert her individuality by becoming a girly-girl or, equally likely, she may take them on and become the most demanding and assertive of the group.

Why Study Birth Order?

Sometimes it is very helpful to understand some of the principles that have influenced our lives. We can’t change the past, it’s true. But we can change the way we look at our past and the way we think about our future. Knowing (and perhaps sharing) more about birth order traits and how a person’s role in his or her family always makes a kind of sense gives us a sympathetic way to understand ourselves and our siblings. If we’re unhappy with our own family drama, this may give us a way to talk about it that is interesting and non-blaming. When people feel understood, there is more room for change.