September 4, 2007

Birth Order: Are First Borns Always Older Than Their Siblings?

 

Yes, but it doesn't mean younger children can't be older than someone, too.  Everyone's a winner!

That said, according to USA TODAY and Science Magazine the oldest kids are the smartest.  Let's assume that this is correct.  What's the reason?



The most common explanation is "resource dilution:"  the oldest usually gets the most parental resources. In any given day, the oldest receives more attention than any of the sibs.  The more attention you receive, the more you develop.  The attention (more reading, more activities, more conversation) is supposed to give the oldest kid the emotional resources to grow.

That's fine, but it doesn't explain why only-children aren't the smartest, for example.  (Common answer: the parents of an only child didn't want more children because it took time away from themselves; so the only-child actually receives "less" attention than other kids in other families.  Maybe, but it can't be true for all such families. (Can it?))

But I favor a different explanation.

First, oldest kids get parentified: "go watch your brother and sister!" "Make sure this baby doesn't roll!"  "Look, I know you're only five, but I can't get up right now, do me a favor and go into the kitchen, get out the lasagna pan, set the upper oven to 450, chop up the garlic and I'll be there in a minute."  Oldest kids may not be smarter, they may just have had to grow up faster; they have to learn to think fast, improvise, etc.  This might explain USA TODAY's survey of CEOs: 50% were first born, while 20% were last born.  

But second, there's this: "you idiot! you chopped the garlic with a steak knife!?"  

You learn fast, lessons your younger sibs don't learn as early in life.  And, specifically, you learn a) what adults "do" (because you're often expected to replicate it); b) that you are always under  scrutiny-- so perform, don't bother trying to hide; c) that you are under more scrutiny than your sibs-- in other words, that they are "special."  Not better, but singled out for more responsibility, more scrutiny than others.  For some reason, you are different.

Here's something interesting: more than likely, you are attempting to frame this post in terms of your own childhood. Were you the oldest, youngest, what happened, etc.  Why doesn't it occur to you to frame it in terms of your own children? 

If you're a parent of more than two kids, ask yourself the following: who do you yell at the most?  Would you trust your youngest today to do things you trusted your oldest to do at that same age (e.g. watch a  baby?)  When you need a kid to do something for you, who do you ask?

I know you'll have "reasons" why you pick the first, but the important part is that for whatever reason, you are picking the oldest. 

Identity comes easier to the oldest born, because it is reinforced (positively or negatively). "You know better, "you're supposed to," etc.  It's pretty easy to see how narcissists are almost always the oldest child.  (And borderlines the youngest, or only.) 

Depending on why they get more scrutiny and more responsibility, they develop differently.   

Maybe by the time the parents get to the third kid they're too tired to uphold the same level of performance-- so it is that the youngest seems to get away with more; maybe the parents realize they were too tough with the first.  In this case, it's too late for the oldest, but the benefit to the younger ones is greater. Maybe they thus get more positive attention and less punishment or control.  So maybe they become artistic, or pick a career that's unusual.

But sometimes a relational pattern is established, like dating the same kind of guy over and over.  A pattern develops, where the oldest "never does anything right" (because he's expected to do what would never have been expected of the youngest)  and parents are repetitively in an emotional state of anger or frustration.  Soon, that's how they relate to each other; the oldest on the defensive, or trying to perform, the parents on full alert, ready to go insane.  Even when the kid grows up and stops making such "stupid mistakes," the pattern is already firm: the parents relate to him by leves of anger and frustration.

The result in this situation is that the oldest goes on to succeed-- amazed, really, at how easy the world is and how little is actually expected of or necessary from him, in comparison to what went on at home-- but is simultaneously bitter, resentful of how easy it is for other people to be happy when they want to be, despite their lack of successes.  These people can easily become abusers (especially emotionally) ("I hate your emotions!"); they can become alcoholics ("I hate my emotions!"); insomniacs ("I hate that another day has passed and I have done nothing of actual consequence, nothing, nothing, nothing.")

(For more on prenting/developmental issues, search the site for "parenting.") 

 

 

 

 






Comments

LP, you may be on to someth... (Below threshold)

September 4, 2007 3:51 PM | Posted by AK: | Reply

LP, you may be on to something.

My mother was the oldest of 7 children, and ended up having to parent the younger children. She told me that her younger sister came home one day, in a state of utter terror, and wailed, 'I'm BLEEDING!'

My poor aunt had started to menstruate. No one in that large family (already under stress) had thought to tell her about the facts of life. So Mom, who was in her early teens, had to scoop her kid sister into her arms, take her to the bathroom, get her some Kotex, show her what it was for, and tell her what was happening to her.

Mom was the only one of her sibs to have just one kid. And she turned out abusive, because she constantly made derogatory comments about babies, pregnancy and little kids, all within my hearing.

She kept insisting I was the exception, but of course, at a gut level, I didnt buy it. I pretended to, just to shut Mom up, but being a small kid, hearing that my mother fundamentally disliked small kids did wonders for my morale.

Must mention my uncle, who was the youngest of those seven children, had ample opportunity to observe the family dynamics and became a steady, hard working guy who hated any sort of favoritism, because he saw how my mother and her brother were favored to death at the expense of the other children.

The middle children were interesting and unpredictable. My uncle Gene was always in trouble, and might have became a juvenile delinquent today. But he ended up getting a good job in the Air Force.

My other middle uncle, Len, was a hell raiser as a kid, but he turned into a hardworking man with a heart of gold, married a girl was was also a middle kid from a huge family and the two of them raised 10 kids and they all turned out well.

Len worked at the local paper, was a union organizer, and he was secure enough in his masculinity that he help do the cooking and laundry.

Mom was the oldest, and her brother was next oldest. They got most of the parental attention and resources, but also got pegged as parental favorites--and both of them had NPD features as adults.

I can tell you that being special is the booby prize of life. If you so much as suspect that there is any favortism in your family, please face it and get it fixed, because otherwise it can blight lives for generations.

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From population demographic... (Below threshold)

September 4, 2007 7:22 PM | Posted by Shalmanese: | Reply

From population demographics alone, you expect 42% of people to be first born so the Vistage study is *not* statistically significant. The entire article is utter bullshit.

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Maybe the oldest children a... (Below threshold)

September 4, 2007 7:36 PM | Posted by Jimmeny Cricket: | Reply

Maybe the oldest children are the smartest because the sperm that bore them is the youngest.

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haha, I like your impressio... (Below threshold)

September 5, 2007 3:00 AM | Posted by getoutgetoutgetout: | Reply

haha, I like your impression of the abuser, alcoholic, and insomniac.

I wonder how this data would apply to multiple births... would it be significant that one twin was the oldest (usually by a few minutes)? Although you'd intuitively think a few minutes are insignificant, I bet it makes more of a difference than you'd think because families label one as "older" and one as "younger" and eventually such labels influence behaviour, regardless of the length of time separating older and younger.
Of course, if I had to guess, I'd say multiples are probably in a whole different ballpark when it comes to figuring out characteristic patterns of development.

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Surely your tongue is in yo... (Below threshold)

September 5, 2007 1:18 PM | Posted by Sally: | Reply

Surely your tongue is in your cheek with this one... The research refered to in the USA Today article you linked to would seem to indicate several possibilities; first, that the eldest child is more likely to return a postcard, two that eldest children returning postcards were more likely to lie about their income, three, that people returning postcards are more likely to lie about their birth order, or, pretty obviously, four, that eldest children are smarter. I'm an eldest child which is why I'm smarter enough to understand all of this. I suspect this "study" is the work of a middle child.

Alone's response: yes, that's why I used a joke title as well as an opening sentence of, "let's _assume_ this is true" because I'm not sure it is true. Shalmanese correctly points out that there will always be more first borns than second borns, etc, so it depends how you define it. Is a second born of two also a last born, etc, etc.

My point here was more about how parents treat kids differently.

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I don't have children so I'... (Below threshold)

June 17, 2008 11:36 AM | Posted by Cash McCallister: | Reply

I don't have children so I'm unable to frame this in regard to them; however, I am the eldest of two from my family. Incredible. It's nail on the head.

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"The result in this situ... (Below threshold)

February 5, 2012 5:33 AM | Posted by D: | Reply

"The result in this situation is that the oldest goes on to succeed-- amazed, really, at how easy the world is and how little is actually expected of or necessary from him, in comparison to what went on at home-- but is simultaneously bitter, resentful of how easy it is for other people to be happy when they want to be, despite their lack of successes. These people can easily become abusers (especially emotionally) ("I hate your emotions!"); they can become alcoholics ("I hate my emotions!"); insomniacs ("I hate that another day has passed and I have done nothing of actual consequence, nothing, nothing, nothing.")"

This is me, but I'm the middle child of 3.

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I feel half-way between my ... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2013 6:32 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I feel half-way between my reading this late at night to be a symptom of chronic mental masturbation, and reading something that will be the key that unlocks the secrets to all my problems. Probably chronic mental masturbation since I'm in the frame of mind of "diagnosing" myself (which seems to lead to a lot of wrong actions, but that process of "trying on" beliefs seems better than ending up like my parents who never did and use alcohol to numb the pain), but it's with the intent of trying to make sense of my past (which may actually be a terrible idea using the terminology of psychiatry, but at least it can be consistent which allows me to recognize and edit the narrative to something more normal later... and when I catch myself thinking like that, and look at my past history of subscribing to this or that or that, I immediately think borderline... except for awhile I became a narcissist which started part way through a long-term relationship where I was struggling to find meaning and money and convinced myself I'd become a programming genius by prioritizing that over my relationships with everyone close to me (and resenting them when they didn't support me becoming a reclusive dick) which didn't end well... leading to feeling totally lost, seeking "game" and PUA as a more successful worldview (lol), still in the self-absorbed narcissistic frame of mind... until I was dating another girl and felt guilty for the fact that I my actions reflected someone only looking for sex, but I wanted to connect on a deeper level and was totally unable to, leading to a mushroom trip where I basically glimpsed what it was like be in one frame of mind vs the other (and I made a decision in that moment to admit that the frame of mind I'd adopted was wrong and that I needed to change)... and now I'm here trying to "find the answers" and piece it all together after feeling like I hollowed myself out from my time as a narcissist when I totally discounted everyone around me and cast off my previous standards and replaced it with aspiring to be like Mark Zuckerberg (the movie character, not the real-life person)).

I apologize for the verbal diarrhea.

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