On Being A Big: How Birth Order Really Impacts Us

“Way to be a big” is a common saying between my cousin, Lauren, and me. When we say it, we’re complementing one another on being a good eldest sibling: taking care of our younger siblings, doing chores before we're told, and generally having our lives together. I’m always proud when Lauren takes a moment to acknowledge the effort I’m putting into my family because it feels like I’m fulfilling a crucial role. I don’t really think about it much when we say it, but this compliment has everything to do with theories of birth-order.

Beliefs regarding the relationship between personality traits and birth order are long-standing and common. According to The Birth Order Effect, birth order theory states that eldest children are type-A overachievers who mimic their parents, stepping in to mentor and guide their younger siblings at times. Middle children are the in-betweeners, flowing from negotiators during arguments between the eldest and youngest siblings to rebels vying for attention. They’re also really good friends because they’ve always had a sibling to play with, but they've never enjoyed sole parental attention. Youngest children are the babies, often seeming to get whatever they want because their parents aren’t as nervous as they were the first time around, so they let the kid ride the scary rides at amusement parks or go to the parties their siblings never would have been allowed to go to. Youngest siblings are also usually funniest of their siblings because they have a large audience and find that humor is a good way to get attention in their family unit.

Only children are an entirely different animal; they enjoy lots of parental attention but sometimes feel a longing for social interaction at home. There are also hybrid children because of blended families (i.e. families that have faced divorce or deaths that lead to new marriages and new kids). These families can have kids who are the babies at one house but middle children at another, or kids who were only children for a long time before a sudden half sibling came along. They become a blend of traits from both of their roles, transforming based on their audience and surroundings.

Obviously, not everyone is going to fit the stereotypes associated with their birth order, but a lot of people do. You can see it everyday. For instance, the other day I was babysitting, and I watched the three kids deal with a lemonade stand that wasn’t getting many customers. The oldest quickly became frustrated and wanted to quit, embarrassed that they weren’t immediately succeeding. The middle began offering new solutions and ideas, trying to keep the peace and a little attention on her. Meanwhile, the youngest walked away to play with his toys because a failed lemonade stand didn’t matter when he could get his babysitter to watch him ride his brand new bike.

The lemonade stand example is harmless, but birth order personalities can become problematic as children grow up. I’ve seen a lot of oldest siblings pressure themselves to insane levels because of their perfectionist tendencies; I know middle children whose rebellious tendencies have led to alcoholism or behavioral problems; and I’m friends with youngest siblings who feel like they can never live up to their siblings and throw fits when they don’t get what they want. I don't think these people fulfill their roles solely because of the order in which they are born, but the family pressure can't help.

At the end of the day, we’re all individuals who can’t be summed up by a theory. Birth order theories aren’t innately bad, but we shouldn’t let them box us in. And understanding how birth order can effect your personality can also help you understand yourself more. Eldest children can learn to give themselves a break, middle children may see they don’t have to rebel to be acknowledged, and youngest siblings can be whoever they want instead of copying their siblings (along with accepting things that don’t go their way without causing a scene). Being aware of how your birth order can impact your personality can help you avoid the negative aspects of them while also enjoying the perks, so take some time to self-reflect and see if your habits, history, and tendencies have anything to do with your birth order.

Feature Photo by Annie Spratt/ VIA Unsplash