- Published: 1 June 2021
- ISBN: 9781761043765
- Imprint: Penguin Life
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 288
- RRP: $34.99
Why First-borns Rule the World and Later-borns Want to Change It
Revised and updated
Do first-borns still rule?
How’s your birth order knowledge? Pretty good I suspect.
Most people have an intuitive knowledge that birth order somehow has an impact on a child’s development but they underestimate how far-reaching and just how significant that impact really is. A child’s position in their family impacts on the child’s personality, behaviour, learning and ultimately their earning power.
When I published the first edition of Why First-borns Rule the World and Last-borns Want to Change It in 2003, I wanted to highlight all the myriad ways we are affected by birth order. The book really struck a chord with readers and I was inundated with letters from people wanting to know more. In fact, it seemed that the book had created as many questions as it set out to answer! ‘What about us middle-borns? Where do we fit in?’ ‘My eldest doesn’t fit the leadership mould. Why does my second-born rule the roost at home?’ ‘How does birth order apply to twins?’ ‘Why are so many teachers first-borns?’ ‘Why does my youngest daughter have her father wrapped around her little finger?’ ‘What about only children?’
There was also a great deal of scepticism from some people about the topic. ‘How can your birth-order position determine your personality?’ ‘Where do genetics and temperament fit in?’ ‘Surely we have free choice and can determine our own life path?’
More recently, as the two-child family has become the norm in many parts of the developed world, I’ve also been asked whether this influences how birth order plays out in families. With nearly 60 per cent of Australian families comprising two or fewer children, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, we are witnessing the disappearance of the middle child, which is a significant societal loss. The rise of the small family has brought about a new birth-order phenomenon whereby the second-born child is also the youngest child in a significant number of families. I call this the Prince Harry effect! This differs from Australia sixty years ago, when a family of four children was the norm. In this typical or normative family, four birth-order positions were evident – an eldest, a second-born, a middle and a youngest. In a family of two, the middle child has disappeared, the eldest remains and there’s significant conjecture about the personality type of the second-born child. The only guarantee is that they will differ from the eldest in personality type, as seconds generally take their lead from the top. A second-born could leapfrog their eldest sibling and take on first-born characteristics, share first-born status depending on their sibling’s gender, or enjoy last-born status as the baby of the family.
Birth-order theory, as I’ll explain in more detail later, focuses on five positions – first-borns, onlys, seconds, middle and youngest children. As many second-borns are also middle children these positions were combined in the first edition of this book. Now that families have continued to become smaller it’s possible to place birth-order positions into two broad areas – first-borns, which includes eldest children and only children, and later-borns, which covers second-borns, middles and youngest children. It can be argued that first-borns and onlys rule the world and later-borns, including second, middles and youngests, want to change it.
Birth order is not a neat set of numbers that plays out the same way each time. There are many variables, including gender, space, parenting style, family circumstances and age of parents, to name just a few, that impact on birth-order personality development. The birth effect is environmental rather than biological. Once you have an understanding of the social environment a child is born into it’s relatively easy to make sense of their birth-order personality. A boy born two years after a first-born girl to parents whose cultural background places higher value on male children, will in all likelihood take on first-born status within his family. If his elder sister was expected to share in the child-rearing then it’s likely that both children will share first-born characteristics. Only when understanding a child’s broader environment can we make sense of birth-order theory.
My first mentor in the area of birth order, Professor Maurice Balson, encouraged his students to view a child’s birth-order position as part of a family constellation of positions. Like a constellation of stars that form their own distinct patterns, children also form distinctive relationships and networks within families, making it difficult to understand one child without knowing the whole family dynamic.
This second edition of Why First-borns Rule the World and Later-borns Want to Change It seeks to increase the reader’s understanding of birth-order theory, including the impact of a child’s broader social environment. It will enable you to delve a little deeper and look for the constellation of positions within a family. Seeing birth order through twin environmental and family constellation lenses will give you a clearer picture of yourself, your siblings, children, partner, friends and colleagues.
Welcome to this second edition.
Why birth order works
The recognition of the effect of birth order on children and adults is only relatively recent. Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler early last century introduced his theories on the way birth order affects personality, and the notion has moved in and out of fashion ever since. In many ways it was placed in the realms of ‘pop’ psychology (good fun to play with but was there any substance to it?) until researcher Frank Sulloway came along in the latter part of the century and added some much-needed scientific rigour to the concept. Sulloway’s work, made public in his 1996 book Born to Rebel, has added legitimacy and substance to birth-order theory.
As a result of 26 years of exhaustive research, Sulloway maintained that the single best predictor of either leadership or revolutionary creativity was birth order. After systematically studying the lives of 6000 North American and European scientists and social reformers, he discovered that their place in their family coincided with their propensity to accept or challenge new ideas and to support the status quo. First-borns were the staunch defenders of conventional thinking while later-borns were the champions of innovation and discovery.
Sulloway’s work also confirmed the existence of a set of personal characteristics and qualities shared by the different birth-order positions. In his metastudy of 196 birth-order studies, Sulloway confirmed the following propositions:
- first-borns are more conforming, traditional and more likely to identify with their parents
- first-borns are more achievement-oriented, organised and responsible than later-borns
- later-borns are more gregarious, cooperative and easygoing
- first-borns are more jealous, neurotic, intense, upset by defeat, and experience more stress
- first-borns are more assertive and extroverted than later-borns.
Does birth-order theory really work?
Birth-order theory works much of the time for most people but it is not foolproof. There are many influences on personality development, including genetics, temperament, family style and broad environmental and social factors. Birth order is just one factor that impacts on personality development but it is a powerful one nonetheless. There are exceptions to birth-order theory but they make sense when you look at the whole picture of a person and understand how birth order works and how variables impact on the rules.
According to Alfred Adler there are five positions that a child can be born into: first-born, second, middle, only and youngest. Many theorists commonly reduce birth order to three positions: first-borns, second-borns and youngest children. I refer to these three positions, but I also include a chapter on only or single children. Only children are in fact first-borns who have never been displaced. Kevin Leman in The New Birth Order Book refers to only children as ‘super first-borns’ as they share many of the characteristics of first-borns, though they tend to be magnified in many of these children. Middle children and second-born children also share common traits and circumstances – and as I’ve said, these days with families becoming smaller, many second children are in fact youngest children. For this reason I have included a chapter on seconds as youngest, dubbed the Prince Harry effect.
Let’s get started.
‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ says Mum, distracting me as she scoops up the last of the chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. ‘I don’t know much about positive ageing, but I’m positive I am ageing.’
I’m on the highway a few miles out of town when the noise starts: a scraping, grinding din that jackhammers my heart into my stomach.
In the early weeks after Dave died, I was shocked when I’d see friends who did not ask how I was doing.
For some, the sound that defined their adolescence was the joyful shrieks of their siblings playing in the garden.
Women today have more opportunities than our mothers and grandmothers ever had, and yet the societal structures we must navigate to claim and own some of these opportunities can still lead us to question our abilities and our power.
‘For young people who have never been through any of those things, or lived in a time when they were happening, this seems just frightful . . .
I heard them long before I saw them, the throaty rumble of their Second World War engines reverberating in my hearing aids as I sat outside on the morning of my 100th birthday.