“And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat [a son] in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth: And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters” (Genesis 5:3-4). This is a brief excerpt of the genealogy of Adam, quite possibly one of the most boring portions of scripture. But this piece of the Bible illustrates an important principle. Since the beginning of recorded time, there has been an order in which children were born. What is significant about birth-order? How does it affect our personalities? These are the questions that a field of psychology known as birth-order psychology seeks to answer. In this essay, we will briefly examine the major birth-order and their associated personality traits. We will also see how these traits play out in my family (the Ware family) and in the life of one of my closest friends. The firstborns, second-borns, last-borns, and only-children, with their specific set of traits, each play an important role in our society.
The most logical place to start in the examination of birth-order is with the firstborn. One would assume the firstborn is always the first child born in a family. It is true that a child that is born first in a family is the firstborn (known as the biological firstborn), there are also “functional firstborns.” These children fulfill the position in the family traditionally occupied by the biological firstborn and have many of the firstborn traits. Functional firstborns may come as a result of several variables, the most common being the first of a gender born in a family with a gap of at least five years between the child and their closet older sibling. This means that the firstborn male or female in a family generally develops firstborn characteristics. In addition, when there is a gap of at least five years between children, the child born after the gap may develop firstborn characteristics.
Firstborns (both biological and functional) are known for being natural leaders. This leadership ability results from the fact that they have an established position in the family as the leader of the pack. Perfectionism, reliability, structure, and a serious demeanor are personality traits common in many firstborns. Much to the dismay of other birth-orders, firstborns detest surprises. They prefer the conventional to the unorthodox and appreciate the status quo.
Due to these specified strengths and weaknesses, firstborns are ideal for leadership positions. Interestingly, the majority of pastors, college professors, and US presidents were firstborns or functional firstborns. This leadership ability develops from the way the firstborn was raised. In general, firstborns take cues from the adults in their lives. According to Jocelyn Voo, “Firstborns bask in their parents' presence, which may explain why they sometimes act like mini-adults. Firstborns are diligent and want to be the best at everything they do. They excel at winning the hearts of their elders.” This diligence and excellence has a downside, however. Firstborns can tend to dominate and control their siblings. While this helps the firstborns to develop their characteristic leadership ability, this can put their younger siblings in an uncomfortable situation.
I can attest to the accuracy of these findings. I am the oldest of four brothers. Growing up under the careful eye of my parents, I developed a keen sense of right and wrong as well as a desire to do things correctly. I am exacting and perfectionistic. Whenever I am on a team, I tend to take the role of the leader. Unfortunately, I have the tendency to take charge when it is not mine to take. In addition, I do tend to dominate my younger brothers. By the grace of God, I have gotten much better at allowing others to lead and allowing my siblings to be the unique people God created them to be.
Next on our tour of birth-orders is the middle-child. Middle children are, by far, the hardest birth-order to pin down. Middle-borns are any children born between the firstborn and last-born who have not taken on the tendencies of the functional firstborn. That includes a huge range! Dr. Leman describes middle-borns as an “inconsistent paradox.” However, there are some broad observations that can be made about the middle-child. In general, middle-children play off of the sibling directly above them. Just as the firstborns play off of their parents, second-borns play off of firstborns, third-borns off of second-borns, and so on. There exists one major difference between the firstborn’s playing and the middle-children’s playing. Where firstborns look up to and imitate the adults in their lives, middle-children look at the sibling above them and go in the opposite direction. Middle-children observe that their older siblings already have a niche carved out for themselves. Going in the opposite direction, they find an unoccupied niche to fill.
Despite the complicated position of the middle-born, there are some personality characteristics that, generally speaking, are true for the middle-child. Due to their constricted position, middle children generally look for fulfillment among their peers. They are known for being strong friends and people-pleasers. Through competing for their parents’ attention, they learn the art of persuasion. Consequently, they make excellent negotiators and competitors. (Murphy, 18-20) Middle-children are also known as rebellious. Where firstborns have a place as the leader of the pack and last-borns as the caboose, middle-children have to carve out their own identity. During many of the scientific and social revolutions of the world, latter-borns (a term encompassing middle-borns and last-born) were the pioneers and the leaders. For instance, during the Protestant Reformation, the latter-borns were significantly more likely to side with the rebellious Protestants than their more reserved firstborn counterparts.
In the process of seeking companionship and belonging outside of the family unit, middle-borns develop incredible people skills. These skills can be used in a variety of settings. Middle-children are ideal for careers interacting with people. They make the best salespeople, ambassadors, and representatives. They are also incredibly competitive. Many entrepreneurs, such as Donald Trump or reality TV fame, are middle-children.
Like the firstborn, middle-children can be clearly seen in the Ware family. My brother John is known for being able to get his own way. He is an amazing persuader and negotiator. Possessing incredible abilities of original thought, he can be a tad rebellious, in his own way. These abilities make him suited as a problem-solver and a strong friend. Daniel, the third Ware boy, is a characteristic “squished” middle child. Where I get attention as the firstborn, John as the second-born, and Philip as the last-born, Daniel has to fight for attention. He rarely likes to have an opinion and thrives on harmony among people. I can see him becoming a great peacemaker someday.
We now reach the final piece of the personality-pie when it comes to multi-child families: the last-born. Last-borns are the life of the party, the entertainers, and the comedians. Unlike their older siblings, the youngest child came along just in time to escape the careful, punishing eye of their parents. Last-borns are generally unable to distinguish themselves by having the glory of the firstborn or the competitive nature of the middle-child. Instead, they seek to please and entertain. They are known for their sense of humor, their charm, and their easygoing nature. Last-borns also have the advantage of multiple “parents.” Older siblings frequently swoop in and become the teachers, advisors, and cheerleaders of their youngest brother or sister.
Lastborns are equipped to become comedians, actors, and entertainers of all sorts. The downside to this personality is being laidback to the point of frivolity. Sometimes, it is very difficult to get a last-born to sit down and think through the cost of their frequently impetuous actions. Last-borns need perfectionistic and detail-oriented firstborns to help them with the more minute aspects of their ideas.
Philip, my youngest brother, is no exception to the birth-order trend. He is, indeed, the life of the party! Even at his young age, he is quite popular and enjoys making people smile and laugh. Unfortunately, he is also impulsive. Mom and Dad have to keep him from many a disaster!
Finally, we reach the oddball of the birth-order club, the only child. Only-children exhibit both characteristics of the firstborn and last-born. However, being raised with the undivided attention of their parents, only-children tend to exhibit extreme variations of the firstborn personality. They are independent, critical, goal-oriented, and do not appreciate criticism, unless it comes from themselves. Only-children grow up around primarily adults and are extremely mature for their age.
Only-children, like firstborns, are ideal leaders. They are quickly spot faults and try to correct them. They are creatively able to think outside of the box. However, only-children must learn how to accept and assimilate criticism of their work. They must also learn how to be considerate in their assessment of other’s work.
While no one in my immediate family is an only-child, my best friend happens to be. Wes Brooks was kind enough to give me some insights into being an only child. Speaking of the originality and dislike of criticism characteristic of only-children, Brooks said this, “I have always been attracted to 'blazing my own trail' and thinking critically about the world around me and my place in it. Though I do appreciate criticism from those I respect, I tend to hold my thoughts and opinions in highest esteem. When I learn I am incorrect about something, I am tempted to wrongly punish myself because of it. I have high standards, and hate it when I miss the mark.” Wes infuses these high standards into his work with video editing and creation. He spends a great deal of time scrutinizing every element of his videos to get them just right. “I feel strongly about things,” Wes wrote, “My individual and leadership temperament has a tendency to say, ‘No, this is the way it’s supposed to be!’ Rather than pointing out everything I would do differently, I must appreciate the different 'brush strokes' someone else applies to their own work. It is important to appreciate the differences that make up someone else’s work, even if you’d do it differently if it were your own.” Wes is, indeed, a characteristic only-child. But I believe that my friend has learned to recognize and utilize the strengths of his personality and work on its weaknesses.
While birth-order is an excellent indicator of personality, I must stress that it is only an indicator. No one fits perfectly within a personality box. There are hundreds of variables that can disrupt normal birth-orders. While I won’t explain them all, here are a few of the ways birth-order can be disrupted. The death of a child: when this occurs the next child frequently feels the need to fill the hole left by the absence of their sibling. The “dethronement” of a firstborn: this is when the second-born usurps the firstborn’s position in the family and takes on the firstborn’s personality type and position. The blending of two families: when two families are combined, due to a death or divorce, it causes children to vie for their niche in the family unit. Unless each child can find a new place to fill, it can cause the traditional birth-order to be completely thrown off. The spacing of children, the sex of the children, adoption, the parents’ birth orders, the parents’ relationship, and parental criticism can all affect birth-order.
Birth-order psychology is very telling. It is yet another way we see the hand of our magnificent Creator at work. The firstborn leaders, second-born competitors and negotiators, last-born entertainers, and only-child achievers each play a pivotal role in our society. Each personality carries with it a specific set of strengths and weaknesses. This being said, we are not bound by our personality. When we recognize where there is room for improvement, we can allow God to work us over. Perhaps this is the ultimate conclusion of birth-order psychology. Our unique personality traits show us who we are as people and how we fit into God’s magnificent jigsaw puzzle of the universe. They also show us where our weakness lie, demonstrating where God is working to make us more Christ-like.