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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

Baby Up: The Truth About Birth Order

By Gordon Young

"Your birth order whether you were born first, second or later in your family has a powerful influence on the kind of person you will be, the kind of person you will marry, the type of occupation you will choose."

When 32-year-old Mick Normington learned that his younger brother, Dan, was having academic trouble in high school, he blamed himself.

"The greatest guilt I've ever felt stemmed from not being there for half of Dan's life," says Normington, who moved out of the family home in Phoenix to attend college and hasn't lived in the area since. "So I was willing to do anything to help him get through high school."

Normington checked his finances and determined he had $1,200 to spare. He told his 18-year-old brother the money was waiting for him if he graduated. Instead, Dan asked his brother to take him skydiving when he earned his diploma.

"I would have preferred a fishing trip or a hike in the Grand Canyon," Normington says. "But I was willing to jump out of an airplane at 13,000 feet if it would help him."

Psychologists who believe that birth order has an impact on personality wouldn't be surprised by this story.

"Your birth order — whether you were born first, second or later in your family — has a powerful influence on the kind of person you will be, the kind of person you will marry, the type of occupation you will choose," says psychologist Kevin Leman, Ph.D., author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are.

Not everyone shares Leman's enthusiasm. Birth order has been a source of debate since the early 1900s when psychiatrist Alfred Adler — a second-born child who felt overshadowed by his older brother — came up with the theory. In 1983 Swiss researchers Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst wrote a damning review of 1,200 birth-order studies labeling past research as contradictory and inconclusive.

Their findings, in turn, have been called into question. Frank J. Sulloway, a research scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contends that Ernst and Angst painted an inaccurate picture of past birth order research.

In Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, Sulloway writes, "In the drama of sibling competition, birth order and gender appear to be the two most important players in the choice of sibling strategies."

For parents, a knowledge of birth order basics is necessary in evaluating its role in child development. Many have found it to be one of many tools that help them understand and raise their children.

Firstborn freedoms

Firstborn children like Mick Normington — not to mention Rush Limbaugh and Hillary Clinton — make up 44 percent of the world's population. Because they usually receive the undivided attention of both parents early in life, many have great confidence when they grow up.

Firstborns tend to spend more time with adults and often mature at a faster rate than the siblings who come after them. They must also measure up to the enormous expectations of the adult world represented by their guardians.

"For one reason or another, we expect too much of first-borns," Leman writes. "We make them the pacesetters and standard-bearers of the family."

Normington remembers being torn between his own social life and the responsibilities he placed on himself in high school.

"I wanted to be a typical teenager, but at the same time I was trying to be an adult for my younger brother and sisters," Normington says.

Firstborns are likely to be driven and demanding. All seven Mercury astronauts were firstborns, along with 52 percent of American presidents.

But this pressure is unnecessary. Alice Mahler, director of community services at the Parent & Child Guidance Center in Pittsburgh explains, "It's OK for parents to relieve them of their duty, to give them permission to step back and not play the role of parent for their younger siblings."

Middle muddle

Middle children are the most difficult to categorize. Like Jan and Peter in The Brady Bunch, they are often seen as the victims of benign neglect. They tend to get far less play in family photo albums than firstborns.

"Each child looks above and sizes up the older sibling," Leman writes. "If he senses he can compete with the older sibling, he may do so. But if the older brother or sister is stronger, smarter, then the second-born typically shoots off in another direction. Any number of lifestyles can appear, but they all play off the firstborn."

Because middle children are frequently forced to negotiate with older and younger siblings, they often work well in group situations later in life.

Middle children can also present a challenge to parents.

"They can tend to care less what adults think," Mahler explains. "Parents should know that they may be more defiant and testing."

The changing nature of American families is definitely having some impact on birth order's traditional role, especially middle children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, families have approximately 25 percent fewer children than they did 30 years ago. With fewer kids, parents can more evenly distribute their attention and their resources, making the disparities between siblings less pronounced.

Last but not least

The last born child is often freed from the high expectations of his or her parents, who are content to pamper the youngest without condition.

"Youngest children in the family are typically the outgoing charmers, the personable manipulators," Leman writes. "They are also affectionate, uncomplicated and sometimes a little absent-minded. Their 'space cadet' approach to life gets laughs, smiles and shakes of the head."

But parents may need to put limits on the "performances" of the youngest children.

"The last borns tend to grow up faster because they are socialized to older children," Mahler says. "Sometimes parents need to put a lid on it and set ground rules."

And while last born entertainers such as Goldie Hawn, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy seem supremely confident, the youngest child may often be burdened with the need to gain the respect of older, often more responsible, siblings. Despite their tendency to perform, they are often unsure of their abilities and especially sensitive to criticism.

The approach the Normington Brothers took to their day of skydiving fits the birth-order profiles. Mick, the oldest, was surprised by the enthusiasm his free-spirited brother — the baby of the family — showed for jumping out of planes.

"I was scared, really scared, but Dan loved it," Normington said. "My heart was pounding like I'd just run a marathon, and he couldn't wait to do it again."

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