Birth Order

Where were you born?

No, I don’t mean the country or the city. My question relates to the place you held in the family in which you grew up.

Dr. Kevin Leman’s Birth Order Book (written by a youngest child) raises a fascinating theory of how important one’s place in the family is, in determining your character.

The basic attitudes of character that any of us show are developed in the first five years or so of life. If we are the firstborn, we do not have any brothers or sisters for a period of likely at least a couple of years. Our upbringing is therefore almost completely in the hands of adults. Bigger, wiser and stronger than we are, they impress on us both a sense of the need to excel, and a further sense of how far we fall short of their expectations, even when we try our best. Firstborns therefore tend to be leaders, fixed in their opinions, and very often frustrated and depressed at the way their lives are going, because they cannot be 100% perfect, even to the point of suicide.

If younger siblings come along, the eldest have plenty of scope to practice their leadership skills on them. If they stay as only children, then they can be even more fixed, authoritarian and depressed than when they become ‘one of a family’. Yet an amazing number of people in leadership positions in the working world—politicians, clergy, airline pilots, for instance—are found to be firstborns.

The youngest child is quite different. By the time there are more children, the attention of parents is diluted, and the youngest one is likely more influenced by elder siblings than by parents. So the youngest child is often spoiled, irresponsible, and highly creative, always looking for attention—a monkey and a trouble maker, to the great annoyance of the eldest.

Other children, like myself, have been sandwiched between the oldest and the youngest. In order to survive, they learn to compromise and to negotiate and settle the differences between the older and the younger, and how to avoid making waves.

This is just an outline of Leman’s basic ideas, but there are endless variations. Some second children aggressively steal the leadership position of the eldest. Children born as youngest after a long interval, or who are adopted into a new family, may take on a leadership attitude—hence the difficulty of blending two families if there has been remarriage after a divorce. The attitudes and expectations of parents towards the different sexes can also make a difference.

Success and failure in marriage can be affected by birth order. Two firstborns may well make their marriage a continual struggle for control. On the other hand, an eldest matched with a youngest can be a very good pair—one steering the ship, and the other giving humour and creativity that would otherwise be lacking. Two last borns are in danger of dissolving into irresponsibility and chaos. Two middle borns may well lack creativity and/or a sense of direction.

Interesting things happen when family events, such as the death of a firstborn, move others into a position for which they had not been prepared—they may find themselves trying to play two roles at once. And so on.

I’ll leave you, therefore, to take a look at your own personal history, and see if the good doctor makes sense—or is just playing a last born joke on us. I’ll also leave you with a word of advice. Before you buy that ring, find out from your intended spouse just where in birth order the two of you fit. At the very least, it will enable you to understand what to expect from your partner. At best, it may help you avoid a catastrophe!

– Gemini, 2007*