Monday, April 5, 2010

Birth Order: Myth or Reality?

When I was writing The Empty Room, and doing a considerable amount of delving into the scientific literature on siblings, I, of course, encountered the notion of birth order, i.e. the theory that the order of your birth in a family affects your personality, your intelligence....basically everything about you. It's a theory that isn't thought to have all that much import, as far as I can tell. I gave it short shrift in my book, too, largely because it exemplified the limited extent to which anyone within the psychological realm had considered the relationship at all. And experts told me that the theory was, in essence, stupid. Plus, the idea of a formula that neatly summarized the relationship annoyed me. (I'm easily annoyed when it comes to ignoring the subject of siblings.)

Now that I have two kids, I find myself thinking what a HUGE influence the order of birth may have on each of my sons. Henry had our undivided attention, my doting anticipation of his needs, for the first three-and-a-half years. Luke, on the other hand, gets planted places--a bed, the floor, a bouncy seat--while we tend to Henry or some other immediate crisis in the household, and, bless him, often quietly amuses himself until one of us remembers to go pick him up again. Lately, he's taken to giving an enormously loud cry when he's had it...and I can't help but wonder if he's learned that he better be loud if he needs something, and whether this I'm-mild-but-I've-hit-my-limit loudness will become part of his mature personality. Luke's childhood has also been vastly more social, more kid-oriented, than Henry's, by virtue of the fact that he's watching another kid--Henry--all the time, and dragged around to the park, etc., where other little kids peer into his face and poke him.

I encountered this article, noodling around on the web with the search phrase "birth order." The article, by Joshua K. Hartshorne, appeared in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind. Hartshorne--another quick google search suggests that he's a Harvard grad student in the psychology department, but I'm not sure--comments on the fact that birth order theory hasn't been taken all that seriously in the past, largely, he says, because the studies were pretty weak. But he cites two recent ones that are stronger--one that suggests that firstborns have a few more IQ points than younger borns (ouch), and another, which he worked on, that suggests that, when it comes to birth order, like seeks out like in both romantic and platonic relationships.

Hartshorne says the two new studies are "good news" for the theory, which strikes me as odd. As a scientist, aren't you supposed to be more interested in the truth than in validating your theory? That quibble aside, I have to admit, now that I'm watching my two guys evolve in relation to one another, and thinking about just how different Luke's early childhood has been, thus far, from Henry's, I can't help thinking there really has to be something to this birth order stuff. I doubt it dictates everything, of course, but something...yeah, I wouldn't be surprised. I also wouldn't be surprised if, like most sibling research, it's complicated and difficult to do.


mrjumbo said...

A couple of quick thoughts, from a middle child in a six-kid family:

Of course birth order affects a child's development, just as many other things do. It's not the only thing that affects a child; it fits into the context of all the other environmental influences. (Does Daddy work? Does Grandma live in the house? Does the kid share a playground with other non-family kids? Is there music in the house? Is the TV always on? The list goes on, forever.) That doesn't mean it will make the child a better child or worse child; it also doesn't mean it will have the same effect on every set of first-second-third children.

But the business you mention of the attention kids get from their parents is pretty clear: First-time parents are very different from veterans, who have been trained by the first kid in all kinds of useful parenting behaviors. You have more time for the first, but you're also learning when you need to be there and when you can let the kid take care of himself. It goes on: The older child is always ahead of you in school; the younger child always has trouble grasping what's easy for you. (Jesus is a classic first child.)

And it lasts long after grade school: My dad died when I was in college, away from home, a young adult. My younger brother was still living at home when it happened, a teenager. What about the first kid whose dad worked while he was in high school, and the second kid who hit high school after Dad retired? That kind of thing has to affect how you develop differently from each other--of course it does--but that doesn't mean it's going to make one kid better and the other worse, or one smarter and the other not, or one more emotionally dependent or resilient.

Now that you have two kids, maybe you'll start to see there's something else going on here too, which at least complements the birth-order effect, if it doesn't wash it out completely: Right out of the wrapping paper, the kids have different personalities. Before you have a chance to get anything right or wrong, the babies already aren't alike. It's little things when they're small, but those different personalities keep going in different directions, giving them different reactions to the same situations as they grow. One kid is crankier; one is more easygoing. One is engaged in the world; one likes to sit and think.

So in the end, when you wonder about birth order, or any of the other things you do as a parent, you have to fit it in with the chorus of other influences. So the first kid is always ahead of the second in school: Does that mean the second feels intimidated and inferior, or does the second feel competitive and inclined to stretch further, learn faster? Could go either way, depending on about six other things (parents, teachers, inchoate personality, etc.).

I guess I'd say I do agree that most first children will share certain experiences in being raised, and most subsequent children will share certain experiences that the first children will not. But I'm not really on board when someone says that means all first children will be smarter or weaker or taller or more naturally gullible. To me that just seems like an explanation that's much too simplistic.

mrjumbo said...

Some further notes to add to the collection:

Shakespeare famously wrote that our destiny is not in our stars, it's in our selves. Birth order is one of many things that could work for or against any kid (or adult), depending on how it all spins out. Whether you're first, middle, or last, you can make it an advantage or let it work against you.

(The article touches, maybe too briefly, on another bigger, maybe better question, which is how we define success. Is the richest guy the most successful, or the smartest, or the fastest? Or is the most compassionate person the one we should mark as most successful? It's not the topic here, but it frames the topic. If birth order matters, on which scale are we measuring the effect? One could ask the same of all those other ways we evaluate developmental influence. Interesting stuff, and a question that shines a light on any culture.)