The Heir or the Spare? The impact of birth order

The impact of birth order has always fascinated me – to what extent is it a self-fulfilling prophecy for those high achieving ‘onlies’, ambitious first-borns, social middle-children and charming (but reckless) youngest?

Of course, there’s loads of examples of where birth-order seems to be telling us something.  How about the laws of attraction?  That birds of a feather flock together? My older brother married a first-born and my husband and I are both second-borns.  Then of course there’s Prince William and Kate.

But for every such story, there’s  also one to show that opposites attract: a Beyonce (eldest) and Jay Z (youngest).  In terms of career, we have the likes of Richard Branson, Hilary Clinton and Taylor Swift as the eldest and middle-born Bill Gates, J.F.K and Madonna.  The youngest children have no less successful counterparts such as Michael Jackson and Margaret Thatcher, as well as only-children (Roosevelt, Elvis and Sinatra).

Having two boys, I can’t help but wonder what this means for them.  I remember being on maternity leave with my second and people saying about their own: “Oh, they’re like chalk and cheese”.  I didn’t find it so easy to categorise mine to tell the truth.  The only objective thing I could compare was sleeping patterns.  Apart from that I was stumped.

I felt pressure to declare some insight that I’d not yet come to.  With the onset of language and more time on the planet, differences are emerging.  Whilst part of me expects this ‘chalk and cheese effect’, this has not borne-out so vividly.  They have the same interests (handy), however there also seem to be some differences along the scientific/artistic continuum.  Although I’m not entirely sure (at nearly-5 and just-7, it is still early days).

I’ve long-harboured this (very unscientific) view that birth-order results in children adopting the roles that are ‘left’ in the family (once others have been claimed).  So if the eldest is cultivated into the classic achiever and leader, other roles may be unoccupied: joker, mischief maker.  Or of course, vice versa.

The reason why I’m assuming children will instinctively carve their own niche is based on a belief that kids are smart.  They are likely to be either consciously (or subconsciously) thinking: “why be a ‘poor second’?” (by following in footsteps). I also think subsequent-borns have more room to manoeuvre.  It’s not just the royals whose younger children have less spotlight.  I suspect so do those of the average Joe.

Becoming a parent for the first time may lead to a more intense parenting style than (putting it bluntly), we have time for with subsequent children.  Some of this probably adds to our guilt (‘am I giving them the same start in life?’) and leads us into a seemingly never-ending desire to ‘give them the same’ (e.g. “He started Beavers at 6, so he will too…”).

This plays out in my own life.  I spent the first night home from hospital holding my second son until 5.30am.  I was worried that I needed to match the attention I felt I’d given my first.  Of course, the irony is, I didn’t stay up until that time with him.

However, I’m not sure that ‘treating them the same’ is either possible or even desirable.  I  recently heard a debate about whether the mantra ‘treat people as you would like to be treated’ should be the standard for how we interact with others, or whether it doesn’t recognise individual differences.  I think this principle also applies to children.  They will have different personalities and they will respond differently to our ‘warning eyes’, the carrot, or the (proverbial!) stick.

Treating them the same may make us feel better, but that may not be what they need.  Someone once joked that the answer is always “it depends…” and I think that applies here.  Our children are unique, so by striving to treat them the same we are ignoring crucial differences about what makes them tick.

To address the elephant in the room, we may have one particular child who reminds us of ourselves (for good or bad!).  We may find these relationships easier; or conversely,  we may clash.  Either way, I think the secret to the ‘good times’ is finding common ground with each – a basis through which we can relate and have fun together.

So where does this leave me?  I’m aware of the perils of putting kids in boxes and the knock-on effect on their siblings.  I’m conscious not to dish out the halos to one and leave only horns for the other.  Treating them the ‘same’ is not the holy grail and that just reinforces the importance of building an individual connection.  But perhaps the main thing that I am going to do is let them be themselves.


I found this link whilst pondering this blog and found it interesting.  Turns out many of my hunches have a scientific grounding after all:

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