What is the Birth Order Theory Everyone is talking about

The definition of birth order theory and what is it all about

By Sylvia Epie
What is the Birth Order Theory Everyone is talking about

The definition of Birth Order Theory

The birth order theory was first brought to light about a century ago by Alfred Adler an Austrian psychologist. And since then it has been further discussed and researched by many different psychologists. According to this theory, the order in which a child is born in the family, be it first-born, second-born, middle or last child, an only child, and twins have a powerful impact on his emotions, behavior and personality development. A child’s spot and position in the family give him a unique emotional experience that has a lasting effect on psychological development and each position in the birth order has its advantages and challenges.

Birth order theory helps explain why children with similar genetic makeup, raised in the same family environment end up having completely different personalities. There have been findings of how birth order affects a person's temperament, IQ, self-esteem, and even sexuality. Professor Frank Sulloway an evolutionary psychologist from the University of California, after researching on birth order for more than a quarter of a century, argues that birth order places each child in a different “niche” from their siblings within the family unit and that these powerful family dynamics forges a mix of personalities that  drive revolutionary advances throughout human history.

Let’s take you through the various birth positions, the ways in which they affect us, and how parents can help their children navigate each positions challenges.

Birth order theory - Only Child

There are two kinds of an only child, the very assertive and highly confident, mini-adult who mimics his parent's attributes and the lonely introvert and shy only child who finds it hard to get along with other children. The previous is like a ‘’super first-born’’ while the latter is more like a last-born.

Only child usually grow up fast, they tend to be perfectionists, are demanding and have high expectations of themselves and others. They’re very self-sufficient since they never had to compete with anyone for their parent's attention. Growing up only with their parents and no siblings, only children can be too trusting in their relationships with other children and are more likely to be bullied.

Depending on the parenting style an only child can benefit or suffer from his position if the parents lack experience they could be permissive with an only child causing him to grow up spoiled and bratty. On the other hand, parents sometimes focus entirely on only children, with high expectations, strict rules, and attention which can cause the child to grow up to be a perfectionist.

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Parenting Tips for An Only Child:

  • Encourage them to be kids – only children grow up too fast and try to act like adults, following their parent's outlook on life.
  • Criticism affects them deeply, so give praise before negative feedback.
  • Do not over-indulge your child – teach them how to value special treats and toys
  • Give them a pet or an opportunity to look after someone other than themselves
  • Create an environment for them to mix with other kids – neighbors, cousins, friends especially those with siblings.

Birth order theory - First born

According to the birth order theory, firstborns are natural leaders, they’re likely to be more conservative and keen to please their parents. First-born children have their parent's undivided love and attention for a while and then later have to share it with subsequent siblings. This might cause them to resent and be hostile to their siblings and spend most of their lives striving to regain their parent's approval and attention.

This need practically shapes their lives as they become assertive, responsible, relentless and achievement-oriented. Most presidents, CEO’s and world leaders are firstborns.

Firstborns also face certain emotional challenges as a result of their position, parents often have high expectations for their first born. Parents want them to succeed more than the rest, so they critique and micromanage their every move.

As a result, the firstborn child ends up feeling pressured to succeed and be perfect, often equating love with success. A firstborn is sometimes more sensitive to other people’s needs because of their experience in nurturing younger siblings.

Parenting Tips for First-Borns:

  • Relax your grip – try not to put too much pressure on your first born to do well and succeed because they are already putting a lot of pressure on themselves
  • Don’t put all the responsibilities on the firstborn, save some for the other kids too.
  • Create a balance between privileges and responsibilities for your first born. This means you should make sure they have certain advantages and not only responsibilities.
  • Encourage first-borns to help with younger siblings so that they can maintain the role of adviser to their younger siblings.
  • Reassure your first born that you have enough love for all your kids. Show them pictures and videos of all the care you provided when they were a baby. And encourage them to speak about their feelings of jealousy and resentment for younger siblings.

Birth order theory - Middle child

The middle child’s position is a complex one, they enjoy and suffer from being both a younger and an older sibling. He has an older sibling who watches over him and a younger sibling who looks up to him. The middle child usually faces a unique challenge of being ignored. Parents tend to focus either on the last child or the firstborn at any given time and this greatly affects the middle child.

You may have heard of “middle child syndrome;” a term that refers to their feelings of being overlooked and forgotten. The birth order theory suggests that the middle child is the one that gets the easiest run in the family.

The middle child’s ties with their parents are not always as strong as the first and last born. They often look outside the family for meaning and this hones their social skills and make them good friendships. The middle child will choose interests that are very different from his siblings especially the firstborn.

If the firstborn excels in academics the middle child will pick sports or when the firstborn is responsible and goal-oriented the middle child is often nonchalant and carefree. Middle children tend to be easygoing and relaxed, they’re great negotiators, diplomatic and flexible as they are used to fitting in with their other siblings. Experts say middle children are usually the most equipped to navigate the outside world when they leave home.

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Parenting Tips for The Middle Child:

  • Help your middle child find their strengths, do not compare them to their older or younger sibling. 
  • Make sure you have photos of your middle child by themselves, not always with their siblings
  • Spend one-on-one time with your middle kid to give them a sense of privacy and not a feeling of being sandwiched between siblings.
  • Make sure your middle child is not lost in the crowd, get them new toys or clothes from time to time and not only hand-me-downs.
  • Encourage your middle child to have a special interest in things the other siblings don’t share for example sports, arts or music.

Birth order theory - Twins

You may be wondering if and how the birth order theory could possible affect twins, but one of the first questions people ask twins is "Who was born first?"

Unlike with the others, the birth order of twins is not preordained, it all depends on the babies position in the womb. And this position changes throughout pregnancy and on whether they’re delivered naturally or through a Cesarean. According to experts, twins organize themselves according to their overall position in the family. This means that if they have older siblings they will act like a second or middle child and if they’re the older ones they will exhibit the traits of a first born. Psychologists say twins usually exchange and alternate between categories in the birth order. For example, one will lead and the other will follow in certain situations while the other one will do the same in other situations.

Another factor is the parental influence and societal expectation, parents usually expect the first born twin to watch over the other twin, take the lead in activities and they tend to encourage them more which will establish firstborn tendencies in them as they try to fit into the mold of the dominant role.

Parenting Tips for Twins:

  • Adopt a neutral set of expectations that will allow each child to fulfill his or her personality.
  • Avoid birth order stereotypes, don’t play into the significance of birth order or societal expectations.
  • Encourage twins to develop different interests and discourage others from overemphasizing the importance of birth order.


Birth order theory is greatly affected by different family structures, like blended families, huge age gaps between children and multiple births, these factors add another level of complexity to the theory.  But overall what makes a huge difference and really affects personality development and character is the way parents treat their children and their parenting style. Author and parenting educator Michael Grose wrote a book called “Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It”, which explores the birth order theory and provides great tips for parenting your children according to their position in the family unit.

Are you the first-born, middle child, or baby of the family? Or maybe an only child? Do you wonder how the order of your birth or that of your kids if you’re a parent affect you or them psychologically?