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:

The Science of Siblings – cracking the code?

I once read that the best predictor of whether your kids are going to get on lays its roots before your second child is even born.  It all rests on the quality and nature of your first child’s relationship with their best friend.  Quite a revelation.  Also, quite confusing when you only have a two-year age gap between boys.

Now your experience may be different to mine, but my  boys weren’t exactly big on social interaction under the age of two.  This was compounded by the fact that my eldest could barely get vertical in the first year of life.  He spent much of his time being stepped-over as he slinked across the floor with a one-armed commando crawl.  It’s therefore difficult to say who was his best friend.

One of my best friends had a fun, feisty daughter who could talk ten-to-the-dozen and who was similarly lazy in the moving-department.  My son used to ‘hang out’ with her (I mean: ‘eat each other’s’ rice crackers’….). I’m intrigued to know whether there was something in that relationship which laid the foundation for my son’s future relationship with his brother.  In truth, I can’t really remember the details, other than that they laughed a lot.

Before I read about it, I’d assumed that a child’s relationship with their friends mirrors how they play at home with their siblings, so I was surprised to hear that the reverse is true.  It seems that kids learn social skills from their friends not their families.  Their families love them too much (hopefully!).  In contrast, friendships with others are more precarious.  They don’t have to agree with them, or even like them.  They can’t be too boring or too bossy.  They can’t gloat over successes, or moan over losses.  To make friends, kids need to have what psychologists call the ‘theory of mind’ – to know that others think differently from themselves and to adapt accordingly.  This is the core of empathy and the basis for friendship.  Whilst kids may be unforgiving, thankfully they also learn quickly .

I guess this shows that just because they’re related, it doesn’t mean that siblings are automatically going to get on.  I thought it was interesting that so much attention was given to the Brownlee Brothers’ brotherly act at the end of the World Triathlon Series in Mexico.  Whilst it looked instinctive, it wasn’t to sports commentators, or even their own mother who cited their sibling rivalry as their main motivator.  This is no surprise when you hear that levels of competition increase the smaller the age gap (the Brownlees’ are two years apart) and if they are the same gender.  Turbo-charge that principle in the case of boys.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.  The emotional bank account just needs to be in balance.  You can’t keep withdrawing without giving back.  So it’s ok if they argue, as long as positive experiences outweigh the bad (this positivity ratio of 3:1 also predicts divorce rates…).  Those who have larger age gaps or a mix of boys and girls may have fewer fights on their hands, but they may also have less in common.  So it sounds like they need the lows to get the highs, or certainly they are an unavoidable part of life. Perhaps a larger gap means a greater likelihood of the older child becoming a protector and supporter, rather than competitor.

I’m sure we’d all like our kids to play together because they want to, not just because they have to and whilst I’d be lying if I said my guys didn’t bicker, I’d say they get on more than they don’t.  There’s a magnetism between them, resulting in them asking to be reunited minutes after they are separated “until they agree to play nicely”.

Perhaps our role is to help our kids appreciate how special their relationship is with one another – for their shared history, common world-view and sense of humour.  To remind them that they’re on the same team.   Whilst both my guys have great friends, I really hope their connection paves the way for a lifelong friendship with each other.