The firstborn is always an overachiever. The youngest child is the baby of the family. And the middle child is Jan Brady personified. So the stereotypes go. But is there truth to the idea that when your child is born into a family can dictate their behavior? There’s been a lot of debate on the subject of birth order and its impact on a child’s personality. But if you want to steer clear from the stereotypes, you’ll need to know the ways parents can avoid birth order conditioning.
In a way, birth order is almost like trying to predict your child’s personality even before your baby is even able to sit up on his own. “People love to learn about birth order effects,” Dr. Gabriela Martorell, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Virginia Wesleyan University, tells Romper. “According to these theories, whether or not you are a first-, middle-, or later-born child influences your personality.” You're probably already more than familiar with these theories (if you've ever watched TV, that is): Typically, the first child is smothered with attention — and then abruptly loses his title once another sibling shows up. Due to this dethroning of sorts, the firstborn will supposedly then become a structured, successful, and high-achieving adult. The middle child suffers from "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" syndrome, since she’s stuck competing with an older sibling while trying to take the attention away from the younger child, who is often the apple of her parents’ eye. And then you have the youngest, who gets away with murder.
But whether you believe in birth order conditioning or not, it sometimes has a sneaky way of weaving itself into your mind — and as a result, the way you parent. “The problem is that birth order influences are largely a myth,” says Martorell. “Multiple large-scale studies with thousands of people have shown that while there is a very small effect associated with birth order, it’s washed out by factors like genetic influences, socioeconomic status, and culture.” To avoid any parenting pitfalls, these tips can help you see your child for who they are, no matter what order they were born in.
1. Parent Them The Same
The potential problem with birth order conditioning is that it sets up a subconscious expectation among siblings that they might feel the need to live up to. For example, your first child might feel the need to be the leader when in reality his personality lends itself to being more of a happy-go-lucky follower in the fam. “If parents believe in birth order effects, and once these labels are in place, they may, even without realizing it, encourage their children to fill that role,” says Martorell. “So, they might encourage a first-born in school more than a middle child and be more tolerant of misbehavior in the youngest family member.” So be sure to remove the myths and stereotypes from your parenting so that everyone is treated equally.
2. Celebrate The Differences
Living in the same family — and therefore having the same parents and house and many similar experiences — help make siblings more similar to each other. But siblings can still be really different, even if they’re twins. “I would encourage parents to do their best not to have preconceptions about who their child might be and let the child themselves reveal that to you over time,” says Martorell. So if one child loves soccer and another one is into art, it’s important for parents to celebrate their strengths.
3. Offer The Same Attention
If you believe in birth order, you might accidentally adjust your parenting to favor one child over another. For example, you might think that your oldest needs less attention because he’s got it all under control, and favor the baby of the family (even if that baby is well into his teens or 20s), who you may feel needs more of your time. Try to evaluate what each of your children needs in terms of your focus and attention regardless of where they rank in age in your family.
4. Offer Limits
Kids are programmed to push boundaries no matter what your parenting philosophy, and if you buy into birth order conditioning, it can make those boundaries even fuzzier. So be sure to avoid favoring one child over another (i.e., letting the baby of the family do whatever he wants, and keeping a strict curfew on your middle child). “Give your children a world to explore, but set reasonable limits to keep them safe and on-target for the important tasks of childhood,” advises Martorell.
5. Let Them Lead The Way
Ultimately, your child will be the one to show you who he’s destined to be and what his role will be within your the family. That’s why it’s important to not pigeonhole your child’s progress and avoid birth order conditioning that might not match with your kid’s personality or purpose. “Every child is different, regardless of birth order,” says Martorell. “You should always follow your child’s lead.”
Birth order parallels might be interesting, but they don’t necessarily define who your child is, or who they’re going to be in the future. Let your child lead the way in the journey, and whether she’s first, second, or fifth, you’ll find new things to discover with her that have absolutely nothing to do with numbers.
Dr. Gabriela Martorell, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Virginia Wesleyan University