Truesee's Daily Wonder

Truesee presents the weird, wild, wacky and world news of the day.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

 

How Important Is Birth Order?

18 and Under

Birth Order: Fun to Debate, but How Important?

PERRI KLASS, M.D. 

September 7, 2009
CBS

BEAV! WALLY! The title character of “Leave It to Beaver,” played by Jerry Mathers, lower left, helped define the younger-sibling experience.

The older girl was smart, neat and perfectly behaved in school; in her spare time, she won dance trophies. At every checkup, her mother would tell me what a good girl she was.

She is the oldest, her mother would say, so she gets lots of attention, and she works very hard. When her younger sister turned out to be an equally good student, the proud mother explained that naturally she wanted to be just like her older sister.

Then a long-looked-for baby boy was born. When he was a toddler, I began to worry that his speech seemed a little slow in coming. His mother was perfectly calm about it. He is the only boy, she said, so he gets lots of attention, and he doesn’t have to work very hard.

Everyone takes it personally when it comes to birth order. After all, everyone is an oldest or a middle or a youngest or an only child, and even as adults we revert almost inevitably to a joke or resentment or rivalry that we’ve never quite outgrown.

Children and parents alike are profoundly affected by the constellations of siblings; it is said that no two children grow up in the same family, because each sibling’s experience is so different.

But that doesn’t mean the effects of birth order are as clear or straightforward as we sometimes make them sound. Indeed, birth order can be used to explain every trait and its precise opposite. I’m competitive, driven — typical oldest child! My brother, two years younger, is even more competitive, more driven — typical second child, always trying to catch up!

I surveyed some experienced pediatricians about when parents are likely to bring up birth order. Many cited the issue of speech, especially when a second child doesn’t talk as well or as early as the first.

And parents are likely to talk about mistakes they think they made the first time around. This time, we’re going to solve the sleep thing good and early. This time, we’re going to get it right with potty training. This time, we’re going to sign the child up for soccer.

“Too many parents are haunted by experiences both good and bad that they identify with their birth order,” said Dr. Peter A. Gorski, a professor of pediatrics, public health and psychiatry at the University of South Florida. And that might lead them to classify their own children according to birth order, he went on, which in turn can lead to a sense of identification or even rejection and to “self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Frank J. Sulloway, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives” (Pantheon, 1996), points out that second-born children tend to be exposed to less language than eldest children. “The best environment to grow up in is basically two parents who are chattering away at you with fancy words,” Dr. Sulloway said.

He cited a huge and well-publicized Norwegian study, published in 2007, which found that eldest siblings’ I.Q.’s averaged about three points higher than their younger brothers’. (The study made use of Norwegian military records, so all the subjects were male.)

Those differences in verbal stimulation, like the differences in I.Q., are “relatively modest,” Dr. Sulloway continued, and unlikely to result in clinical speech delays. But in a child who is already vulnerable, a child who may be temperamentally less likely to evoke adults’ attention, or a child growing up in a less stimulating home — well, then, being the second child might be the added risk that makes the difference, he said.

“Birth order doesn’t cause anything,” Dr. Sulloway said. “It’s simply a proxy for the actual mechanisms that go on in family dynamics that shape character and personality.”

We can all cite examples and counterexamples, from our own families, our friends, history and literature. There are plenty of families where the younger child is brighter or more academic, and plenty of literary and historical examples (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Meg and Jo March, Dmitri and Ivan Karamazov — and you can think about those authors and their older siblings as well, and draw any comparisons you like). And then there are plenty of examples of brilliant eldest siblings, but given my own eldest status, I will refrain from citing any. (I told you this always gets personal.)

I.Q., though it does grab headlines, may shape family life less than personality and temperament. “It’s a part of a bigger picture that really involves family dynamics,” Dr. Sulloway said. “Child and family dynamics is like a chessboard; birth order is like a knight.”

Then there are all the other influences, from family size to socioeconomic status. “Typically firstborns tend to boss their younger siblings around, but what if you’re a very shy person?” Dr. Sulloway said. “Napoleon was a second-born and his older brother was a very shy guy, and he usurped the older-sibling niche because his older sibling didn’t occupy that niche.

“And why didn’t he occupy that niche? Temperament.”

Now, of course birth order played into my patients’ patterns, but so did gender and birth spacing and, above all, temperament. That little boy was more even-tempered, more placid than either of his sisters, easily soothed, and I think he would have shown that temperament no matter what.

But temperament also helped define his relationship to the four larger people in his immediate circle. “I wouldn’t discount the impact of birth order,” Dr. Gorski told me. “It sets up the structure of one’s place in relation to others from the beginning, as we learn how to react to people of different ages and different relationships.”

Pediatricians are always being warned not to let a speech delay slip past because of parents’ beliefs that boys talk later or that youngest children talk later. I did eventually insist on a hearing test and speech therapy for this little boy. As it turned out, his hearing was fine, and his sisters drilled him over and over with “use your words” exercises until his speech improved. That is one of the advantages of having hardworking older sisters.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

Archives

June 2021   May 2021   April 2021   March 2021   February 2021   January 2021   December 2020   November 2020   October 2020   September 2020   August 2020   July 2020   June 2020   May 2020   April 2020   March 2020   February 2020   January 2020   December 2019   November 2019   October 2019   September 2019   August 2019   July 2019   June 2019   May 2019   April 2019   March 2019   February 2019   January 2019   December 2018   November 2018   October 2018   September 2018   August 2018   July 2018   June 2018   May 2018   April 2018   March 2018   February 2018   January 2018   December 2017   November 2017   October 2017   September 2017   August 2017   July 2017   June 2017   May 2017   April 2017   March 2017   February 2017   January 2017   December 2016   November 2016   October 2016   September 2016   August 2016   July 2016   June 2016   May 2016   April 2016   March 2016   February 2016   January 2016   December 2015   November 2015   October 2015   September 2015   August 2015   July 2015   June 2015   May 2015   April 2015   March 2015   February 2015   January 2015   December 2014   November 2014   October 2014   September 2014   August 2014   July 2014   June 2014   May 2014   April 2014   March 2014   February 2014   January 2014   December 2013   November 2013   October 2013   September 2013   August 2013   July 2013   June 2013   May 2013   April 2013   March 2013   February 2013   January 2013   December 2012   November 2012   October 2012   September 2012   August 2012   July 2012   June 2012   May 2012   April 2012   March 2012   February 2012   January 2012   December 2011   November 2011   October 2011   September 2011   August 2011   July 2011   June 2011   May 2011   April 2011   March 2011   February 2011   January 2011   December 2010   November 2010   October 2010   September 2010   August 2010   July 2010   June 2010   May 2010   April 2010   March 2010   February 2010   January 2010   December 2009   November 2009   October 2009   September 2009   August 2009   July 2009   June 2009   May 2009   April 2009   March 2009   February 2009   January 2009   December 2008  

Powered by Lottery PostSyndicated RSS FeedSubscribe