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Birth Order Traits: Do They Really Matter?

Updated on October 29, 2012

For years now, researchers have spent a lot of time and money in an effort to discover the true aspects of personality. The question of what makes us who we are has always been a very intriguing one, and many theories have emerged regarding the exact nature of personality. One such theory is called the birth order theory which suggests that a child’s birth number is highly influential in determining the person they will become. According to the theory of birth order, personality development is influenced by the individual’s placement in the family as firstborn, middle child, only child, or youngest child. But, is this theory about birth order traits accurate? For many the jury is still out on that one.

Opinions regarding birth order traits vary widely. Proposed by Alfred Adler in the early 1900s, the birth order theory asks the basic question, “how much does a person’s position in the family mold their personality?” Many believe the theory is flawed from the very start because it only encompasses a three child family structure. Others believe it holds validity simply in the fact that siblings with the same parents and growing up in the same household still turn out so incredibly different.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, researchers have come to understand that the parents experienced by the firstborn are actually not the same parents experienced by the youngest child. Parental attitudes, relationships, and circumstances can change drastically as the years go by. Furthermore, each individual is unique. We are products of our environment and our heredity. Our families are the most powerful part of both. Birth order traits may not provide predictability as far as who we will become. Awareness of tendencies based on birth order may, however, help us to interact more effectively with our families.

Contemporary personality theorists believe that there are five fundamental personality traits that are influenced by birth order. These are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

The Other Variables

Birth order alone is not a sufficient indicator of personality. This is largely because there are other variables that also play a part in who we become. These variables include:

Spacing – the number of years between children. Birth order traits may not apply for siblings who are more than five years apart. Instead, this may result in a family having two “firstborns.”

Gender – Sons are often treated as the firstborn even if they have an older female sibling. Also, the youngest child with three older brothers has a far different experience than the youngest child with three older sisters.

Physical differences such as disabilities and medical needs – Children with special needs often require extra attention. This can affect typical birth order traits.

Family Structure – The blending of two or more families due to divorce, death, etc. can also influence birth order patterns.

The Firstborn

There is quite often a special relationship between first time parents and their firstborn child. Parents make a special effort to record every milestone, every accomplishment, and every documented achievement. First time parents often put forth considerable effort to make sure they do everything right. The birth order trait theory suggests that this often results in a child that also strives to do everything right in return.

Parents tend to spend more time with their firstborn children than any other. This is primarily because their attention is not divided between several children. Parents often have more time to spend playing with their first born, providing more stimulation and language interactions. It is thought that this increased engagement and encouragement gives the firstborn an increased desire to achieve and continue to receive this praise.

Later, many families begin to rely on the firstborn, leaving them in charge of the younger siblings. In this way, the child becomes dependable and siblings begin to view them as a leader. The first born is often described as determined, ambitious, and confident and this is believed to be because they were given such opportunities to practice dependability.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to being the first born. The pressure to succeed and desire to achieve can be highly stressful. Some firstborns develop a fear of failure and this can exacerbate stress. In addition, the rules and guidelines set for firstborn children tend to be stricter than those found for the siblings that follow.

Only Child Syndrome

When firstborns turnout to be only children they are often perceived as lonely. While this may be very true at times, only children also enjoy the continued undivided attention of their parents. Because of this attention only children typically develop stronger language skills. The alone time they face fosters development of creativity and imagination. Despite the stereotypes we typically see of the spoiled and selfish only child (also known as the only child syndrome), these children are often just as happy and well adjusted as children with siblings.

Just like with the firstborn, the only child is typically under considerable pressure as they grow up. The weight of their parent’s expectations can be great. In turn these children often begin to create high goals for themselves. The personality of an only child is often more driven than even the firstborn. They are often conservative, well-organized, and reliable to a greater degree as well. Many only children desire perfection above all else and because of this they can become quite critical of themselves and others.

Middle Child Syndrome

The middle child can exhibit a variety of characteristics. They may be the mediator or they may totally avoid conflict. They may be shy and quiet or they may be friendly and outgoing. They may compete openly with their siblings or they may shy away from competition. The middle child shows the most variety of any of the birth order positions. They can be the hardest to pin down, but in general they are likely to be opposite of their older sibling.

Many middle children feel “squeezed” between the older and younger siblings. They often feel that they do not have a place in the family. After all, they are not the prized firstborn and they are not the cute baby. Middle children typically lack individual attention from parents and interrupt this to mean that they are less loved or even unloved all together. Psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs coined the term “middle child syndrome” to describe these common feelings experienced by many middle children.

The advantages of being a middle child include that these children tend to have more people skills than their siblings. This may be due to the increased need to negotiate and mediate that often comes with growing up in the middle. The middle child is often an effective team player which is a trait that undoubtedly encourages many friendships.

The Youngest Child

Often referred to as the “babies” of the family, the youngest may find it difficult to be viewed as anything other than the baby well into adulthood. The youngest child typically has far less expectations placed on them than their siblings. They often grow up with others making decisions for them and thus, as adults, they are less confident about their ability to make decisions for themselves.

The youngest tends to be highly social and outgoing. They also tend to be the most financially irresponsible of the birth orders. They have the potential to be manipulative and spoiled, particularly if they have been babied to the point of helplessness. The youngest is often quite charming and essentially just want to have a good time.

Birth order traits may give us some insight into how personalities are formed, but there are always other variables that influence human behavior. Human actions often defy the predicted responses. This does not mean we cannot learn from these theories and knowing birth order theory may help us all to understand why we are the way we are.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      This is very true! I'm the middle child of my family, and I'm being unloved too. It's really unfair because my parents used to treat me like and independent adult but at the same time, they treat me like I'm 12. They pay more attention to my older and younger sibling. I'm the only girl of my family and I feel like and I'm being ignored most of the time.

    • LQWILLIams profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I love all things related to human behavior. My undergraduate degree is in psychology as well. It's always nice to hear someone else shares my passions. Good look with your studies.

    • abbykorinnelee profile image

      Abigayle Malchow 

      6 years ago from Ripon Wisconsin

      Great HUB! I love psychology it's a passion of mine and I am finishing my Bachelor's in Psych. I just took a Personality and Therapy class last semester that talked about birth order and according to that class (theory based) birth order used to be a strong theory but it really doesn't seem to matter. However, if you look at child developmental research studies (just did one in class yesterday) they will measure something in their study and one of the things they look at is birth order.

    • Elani-Lee profile image


      6 years ago from Los Angeles

      This is funny. I know it is a generalization, but I'm the youngest of 3, and I identify more with the descriptions of the first born, and I feel like the description of the baby is my older sister (first born) to a tee!!

    • LQWILLIams profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      6 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Great hub on the birth order experience. There are so many components regarding birth order which you eloquently described. Again, excellent piece which should be required reading. You are indeed a great writer. I shall be reading more of your hubs!


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