There are many definitions that have been advanced to explain birth order. In simple terms, however, birth order refers to the order in which children are born in a family. In this regard, there are four categories, which exist in a birth order; first born, middle born, last born and only child. The concept of birth order seems to have gained much importance in the recent past, at least to psychologists. For instance, Alfred Adler (1927) theorized on the effects of birth order on personal development. He argued that parents’ reactions to their children were greatly influenced by the position of a child in the family’s birth order. This differential treatment of siblings based on birth order is claimed to influence the developing personality of a child. Birth order is fundamental in helping us understand personality, family dynamics and, also, in providing information on nature versus nurture debate.
Importance of Birth Order in Explaining Nature and Nurture
To explain this, let’s consider a family of four siblings; John, Mary, Jane and Peter, where John is the first born and Peter last born. Let’s assume that their parents are endowed with limited resources. This implies that the first born, John, will obtain better care from his parents than the other siblings simply because, at the time of his birth, his parent’s wealth was maximum. John will deplete some of his parent’s wealth meaning that when Mary is born, her parents have lesser wealth at their disposal. This is analogous to saying that Mary will receive inferior care than John. If this hypothesis holds, then Peter, the last born, will receive the poorest care, as his parent’s wealth diminishes.
Besides wealth, time is another resource that can be used to explain the differential in nurturing of children. In this regard, it is arguably true that the first-born will be nurtured better than other siblings in the birth order. This is because parents have adequate time to take care of their first-born. As more siblings are born, the scarce time is distributed among caring for all of them, implying that the last born will receive the least time of parental care.
The above hypothesis can help explain why in the real sense, everything else held constant, a first-born is more educated than last born in a typical family. This is because the parent’s ability to meet education financial obligations diminishes from the first to the last sibling. However, this hypothesis can only work under the assumption that siblings are equally bright. If we relax this assumption, then our hypothesis collapses.
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Birth Order and Personality
Alfred Adler (1927), in his Theory of Birth Order, seeks to explain the correlation that exists between birth order and personality. He notes that a first-born is likelier to be caring than the last born. To explain this assertion, let’s refer to our earlier birth order; John, Mary, Jane and Peter, with John being the first-born and Peter the last born. Fundamental to this argument is the assumption that there is a significant age differences between siblings. This implies that when Peter is born, John will be old enough and his parents may require him to contribute towards taking care of Peter. In this regard, John’s parent may assign him a role of bathing Peter. With time, this will become a routine to John. Given that, John, like any other child, is in his formative stages, this is likely to impact on his life in a positive way; he is likely to become more caring and responsible at adulthood than Mary Jane and Peter. In any case, Peter will have no one to take care of; it means that he is likely to be the least responsible. This analysis can be used to explain and strengthen Adler’s proposition, that a first-born is generally more responsible than a last-born. It is rather interesting to note that some psychologists have used this dimension to argue that first babies have more leadership skills than last babies (Forer, 1969).
Birth Order and Family Dynamics
Psychologists have also used the concept of birth order in an attempt to explain dynamics in a modern family. The concept, for instance, has been applied to explain the role that siblings situated differently in the birth order assume. Kottman (1993) observes that in a modern family setting, older siblings are more successful in social endeavors. To explain this, he argues that when the first child is born, there are no other children in his family to interact with. As such, the child ends up interacting with adults, who inculcate some important attributes in him e.g. problem-solving skills. Conversely, children lower in the birth order are likelier to interact with other children, and not adults. This limits their chances for acquiring such attributes from the elderly. In fact, empirical studies on birth order have suggested that first-born are more successful in managing their families than last-born. It is also arguably correct that first born are more able to cope with stress than other siblings (Leman, 1985). This can be argued from the dimension that parents impose strict rules to their first children while they become more reluctant to late children. At the lowest level of analysis, a first-born is used to stress from his parents throughout his formative stages, making him more resilient to stress in his adulthood.