But I got here first!: How birth order can effect sibling roles

I’m a bit of a softie for sibling roles in family dynamics, and although there are definite limits to the validity of utilizing birth order to explain behavioral and personality traits, some value yet remains.

Older research asserted a variety of characteristics to various birth-ordered children. It ranges from the 1975 Wark, Swanson and Mack study that claimed it definitively found that “the relationship between birth order and college planning is consistent and linear,” with the proportion of planned college-attendees dropping as one runs down the birth order [See “More On Birth Order: Intelligence and College Plans” in the Journal of Individual Psychology] to a study analyzing the effect of birth order on college major [sadly for the sake of argument Colleen Collins’ paper, “The Relationship Between Birth Order and Personality and Career Choices” found little correlation] to a study with the wonderful name and premise “Birth-Order Differences in Peer Sociability at Thirty-three Months” by Margaret Snow in a 1981 volume of Child Development  [Lest we be let down in our birth order assumptions of these little tykes, Snow asserts that “differences were found favoring sociability in children with one or no siblings. Assertiveness followed the same pattern.”]

But more recently the rigor of many of the studies was called into question, and the belief in birth order as particularly relevant to the creation of specific personality traits seemed in fairly dire straits in the research world. However, a 2007 study by two Norwegian epidemiologists supported the type of finding that has been the bread and butter of birth order hypotheses: a negative correlation between IQ and birth order. For real. They found (and it was a small correlation, so youngest of large families don’t need to panic) that the more older siblings one has, the lower one’s IQ. [Let me just establish here and now that I’m an oldest.]


Further, in 2009, Joshua Hartshorne, Ph.D. student at Harvard University, found together with his research colleagues that “birth order influences whom we choose as friends and spouses. Firstborns are more likely to associate with firstborns, middle-borns with middle-borns, last-borns with last-borns, and only children with only children.” [See “How Birth Order Affects Your Personality“.]

Additionally, to perhaps support the birth order theory when it seems utterly insupportable in certain cases, Alfred Adler himself, the Austrian psychiatrist who first subscribed to the primacy of sibling roles in personality formation, recognized that, sometimes more than actual birth order, the sibling roles that the children construct–or get constructed for them–may be what is really of the essence. In a piece on birth order entitled–curiously enough–Birth Order, the authors write, “although a child may be the youngest, the gender mix of the siblings, the differences in ages, and other unique variables may combine to create a firstborn role for the youngest child.”

But that assertion itself assumes the very belief in the ‘stereotyped’ role-structure for birth order among siblings.

John Adams was himself an oldest–and, as a man who became the president of the United States (and, as our second president, he was a man to do it before everyone else was doing it), we can safely call him a high-achiever. McGoldrick writes that he had “the high ambition, drive and sense of responsibility so typical of an oldest child,” which he passed down to his son, John Quincy. Now, John Quincy was actually a second, but, referring back up to Adler’s constructed birth order, because the eldest was a girl, with much fewer expectations placed on her, John Quincy played the role of the oldest for our circumstances here. John’s expectations were high for John Quincy, who did indeed succeed [becoming president still does strike me as unambiguously a success, even if five people already beat you to it], but paid a price for such elevated hopes, as he was subject to self-doubt and criticism and prone to depression. Such suffering under the expectations for the oldest only worsened under John Quincy’s first-born, George Washington, who was unsuccessful in life, despite parental high hopes, and actually eventually killed himself.

McGoldrick contrasts this dynamic with that of playwright George Bernard Shaw and family. Shaw was the youngest of a youngest. She notes that he was a “rebel and iconoclast” who enjoyed poking fun at established institutions. He found that rather much more amusing than working to fix things from within the system. It seems he was also somewhat of a slob, more invested in having fun than in the day-to-day tasks of taking care of his health and home. [The wife he married was an oldest, and was apparently not at all amused by his laissez-faire attitude.]

But, returning to our family systems approach, what specific roles do siblings play in the family, and what purpose does that serve in family functioning?

That answer runs along lines I’m sure you’re familiar with–the responsible, achieving and parental-pleasing oldest, the more adaptable but sometimes lost middle, the impulsive, charming, and skillful-at-getting-his-own-way youngest. If you’ve never heard of these birth order stereotypes, it might interest you to take a look at them, and see how well they do fit you. Supported by research or not, sometimes the nominative value of these roles is just uncanny.

Click on the link below to see the roles siblings play, and how they affect family dynamics:

Family Roles and Characteristics

And notice, after looking at the “titles” of each of these characters, that the “scapegoat” sounds very much like another character we’ve been discussing in family systems: it’s just another name for the Identified Patient.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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