Birth Order: How it Affects Your Kids & Your Parenting

Family Matters on 01.10.13
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Photo: Laura St. John, Courtesy Sarah Karam Photography

Guess where I fall in the birth order? I’m carefree and distractible. I like to get what I want, or I can give a serious pout. And although I’ve got a lot of smarts, I’m extremely forgetful. I run on my own time, which is usually late. I’m one of three girls. Yep, you probably guessed it by now: I’m the baby.

Opposites attract, right? It’s only natural that I'm attracted to my husband, an only child, which is supposedly like taking the some of the typical traits of the “oldest” child -- such as super intense and very responsible -- and multiplying it (exponentially!) by three.

Now that we have three kids of our own, I have noticed how birth order affects our parenting styles. Even more important, we have learned to adapt some of our parenting techniques for each of our children based on their birth order. Here are some typical traits and how we adapt to each one.

The Oldest

The oldest children naturally have the highest level of expectations placed on them. Since they get the most undivided attention at first, this attention can easily turn into the form of scrutiny. This leads first-born kids to strive for perfection. They are typically very mature, responsible, and organized.

How we adapt: My oldest son has all these typical traits. If he's not happy with his work, he erases his writing or rips up his drawing if it's not perfect. We really have to build his confidence by applauding his efforts in his work, way more than just the end product. With three boys, we put a lot of responsibility on him, and he listens well and takes it on. So we have to continually re-assess our expectations of him, and remember he's only eight. We can't be too hard on him, or he becomes even harder on himself.

The Middle

The second born is a whole other story. If your second borns came out first (I know, impossible), there would probably be a smaller world population as people re-assess if they could handle more kids. No matter whether your second is a girl or a boy, I hear the same thing from parents all over the world: Second borns are fearless. They are light-hearted and bring us lots of joy. Overall, "middle" kids have actually less stereotypical traits than oldest and youngest. I think they just try not to get lost in the shuffle.

How we adapt: Since middle children tend to look outside the family circle to feel special, we make sure our middle gets plenty of attention. He's now quite a character. We also stop ourselves from comparing him to his older brother. If there is a negative trait, we label him with the opposite trait so he lives up to a totally opposite expectation. For example, he has a tough time with transitions, and likes things his way. Before a transition comes up, like turning off the television, we remind him first what a good listener he is. We also have learned to make him think whatever we want him to do was his idea, then he's more likely to go with it. A lot of trickery goes on that we never needed to tap into before.

The Youngest

The same things that we worried so much about with our first and second borns are not as much of a concern by the time the youngest rolls around. "Oh just give it to him!" we often hear ourselves saying about giving in to my youngest just to get a moment of peace and quiet. Tables have turned, and sometimes we're just exhausted. It's no wonder why the babies of the family tend to be the most spoiled and less likely to feel like they have to follow rules.

How we adapt: We try not to trivialize his accomplishments just because they are not as big of a deal to us any more since we've been through it two times already. We need to make him feel just as important, and give him responsibilities, too. So when the six and eight year olds are studying spelling words, we now give two-year-old Lucas color sight words to study alongside them. He wants to be a big boy, too, so we build independence at every opportunity.

There are always exceptions to every rule. As a youngest born child, I know that first-hand. So don't get too caught up in stereotypes, and never compare your children to one another in a way that can come out negative. Think about how birth order may have affected you, and how you can adapt your own parenting styles now to help your child be the best he can be. Ultimately, if you label all of your kids positively, they will live up to the best expectations of all!

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