The phrase “middle child” in American culture can, at times, sound like a dirty word. Before you dismiss me completely, consider if you have heard this comment when a child is acting overly dramatic, “Well, she is the middle child.”. And if not the middle child then you expect the youngest child to lack self-control, act rashly and never completely grow up. We suppose the oldest sibling to be responsible, composed and mature. If you’re an only child, well then forget it, you’re allegedly selfish, bratty and stubborn.
There exists countless books by doctors and psychologists who will back the assumptions above, but how much truth is really in their claims? The truth is that there is enough to raise our eyebrows, but not enough to turn our heads. Basically, be wary of the advice in these birth order books, especially the ones claiming that you can determine you child’s entire personality and fate based upon their birth order. Birth order is not the entire story and shouldn’t be the primary factor of fixation when determining how to parent your children.
Why? The argument as to how much birth order really does matter boils down to the nature verses nurture debate. There exists a massive amount of information on this debate, but we have children to tend to so let’s keep it short sweet. Here are the three most important points on birth order to keep in mind while parenting:
1) Effects of Birth Order are Variable
Birth order books are filled with citations of studies on identical twins who were separated at birth. Such studies are thought to be a goldmine because they supposedly isolate the effects of nurture from our nature, but this isn’t always the case. Thanks to the complex science of epigentics (the science by which nurture affects the expression of our nature or in other words our experience causes our genes to be expressed differently) we have made countless discoveries about how identical twins can possess the same DNA, but can experience different expressions of their genes and therefore different outcomes. Therefore, you have to be careful when reviewing identical twin studies as they are not as conclusive as they asserted to be by authors.
When I state that the effects of birth order are variable, I mean to say that every person will respond uniquely to the differential treatment associate with one’s birth order. But where does this differential treatment arise emanate from? Within a society, there arises a need for every member to play a certain role. Families are a microcosm of greater society and do not escape the effect of role casting. Social necessity, and ultimately our survival instinct, spurs us towards casting each other as our most obvious parts. The common good requires that we remain in these roles, as change or experimentation can hurt the whole and so we collaborate together, often subconsciously, to ensure that everyone remains in their given roles. What would happen to our play if the heroine decided to become the villain?
Thankfully, actors, and in our case children, are not equally willing to accept and play their given roles. Even if one is cast for a part, ownership of that part is dependent upon the actor’s compliance in playing it. A child’s alacrity in playing a given familial role will vary based upon their nature and nurture, but the universal human desire for love and acceptance is a bit heavy-handed in this dance. Prosocial behavior yields acceptance and love,therefore it is not so much that our family corners us into being the responsible older child, the loud and boisterous middle or the deviant youngest, but rather it is our desire for social acceptance and love that acquiesces to the labeling and role casting.
2) Effects of Birth Order are Dependent Upon Parental Behaviors
We now understand why parents, families and communities cast children (and adults for that matter) into certain roles through differential treatment and that children willingly play the roles out of desire for social inclusion. What can parents do to reduce the effects of birth order upon their children’s outcomes.
Let Children Try on all the Hats
Primarily, parents need to make a conscious effort to not treat their children differently based upon birth order. Our expectations, natural drive to cast our children into roles, hope and dreams and perceptions of their personalities all work to communicate to our children what role we want them to play and in essence how they can earn our acceptance.
Children are intelligent and they can pick up on your verbal and non-verbal communication. A recent study showed that parents who just had a new baby would suddenly perceive their oldest child as suddenly growing over night and being physically bigger on account of the arrival of an infant in the home. This shift in perception is not due to an actual growth spurt, but to the parents recasting their oldest child as a big sibling and the new infant stealing the role of the family baby.
Since this effect occurs in our subconscious, parents have to make a conscious effort to override it. For instance, consider that your big kid will at times needs to act like a baby and receive your comfort, cuddles and pampering. His feelings of older sibling responsibility can be overwhelming at times, but he can’t let go of control because he expects that his younger sibling is already doing enough for the both of them and there is no room for him to fall apart.
Too much of this pressure can create feelings of resentment for the older child against the younger and it is not entirely his fault because we put his in that position. Instead, expect that all your children can play the role of the smart, loud, responsible, annoying, organized, babyish, conniving, high maintenance, talented and controlling child from time to time. If your first born is smart, it doesn’t mean that your second child can’t be smarter. If you add a new baby, don’t forget that your first born will need to play the role of baby from time to time. Everyone can try on all the hat in this play called life and no one needs to be cast for a lifetime role.
Enable a Secure Attachment and Foster Acceptance
Secondly, parents should ensure that their child are accepted and loved for who they are and, in the early years, intentionally nurture a secure attachment between the parent and child.
Being known & acceptance
Being known is an universal desire among humans. To be love, accepted and appreciated for you who you are is a rare gift in this world, and it can be a significant arrow in your child’s quiver. A child who is accepted and loved doesn’t have the same desperate desire for human acceptance that unaffirmed child may have and he will not need to make the same concessions, and in our case feel forced to play the same roles, than an unaccepted child might.
How do you communicate love and acceptance to a child? Start with affirmation. Affirm what your child demonstrates as important. For instance, instead of affirming your child’s skill in playing softball (which you played and loved), it means accepting and encouraging their demonstrated love art. Affirmation means getting down on your knees when you talk to your child so that you can offer them your full attention at eye level. It means offering at least 30 minutes a day to them to play, without your phone present or work in the back of your mind. A child who knows that they are important to you will be affirmed in who they are because you are the most significant person in their life and no one else can communicate this lesson to them like you can.
Enable a secure attachment
In the early months and years, healthy attachment of a baby to their parents is almost as essential to their development as sleep and food. Without a healthy attachment, babies can fail to thrive and can have their gene expression modified and physiological makeup of their brain altered. Theorists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby studied attachment in detail and found that attachment influences a child’s interpretation of life’s events. Young children look to their parents to help understand their experiences and children with healthy attachments use their parents to check in and obtain information as to the safety and acceptability of what the are exploring. Insecurely attached children become overly distressed when they are put in a stressful situation, but can’t utilize their parent’s comfort and protection properly.
We can postulate that these effects can trickle into a deterring a child’s desires to try new things and find their place in the world. An insecurely attached child receives verbal and non-verbal messages from their parents that they cannot trust their parents and therefore cannot trust themselves. When a child is unsure and anxious, she will stick with what she knows and in our case will quickly to her familial roles. A child might think:
“I’d like to try X, but it seems as though my sister already is playing the role of X.
I don’t want to risk upsetting the status quo and my parents so I’ll just stick with playing my current role.”
3) Effects of Birth Order are Dependent Upon Genetics
Our genetic make-up (nature) can affect the way we are nurtured, just like the way that we are nurtured affects our nature.
Nurture Affects Nature
Exposure to certain toxins, chemicals and experiences in the womb and after birth can modify our gene expression through epigenetic processes. Thanks to epigenetics, we now know that nurture can affect our nature. Epigenetic modifications can occur from both natural and unnatural chemical sources- anything natural like adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine and serotonin to the unnatural like pollution and lead.
Our experiences are processed chemically and these experiences can affect how our genes are expressed. For example, young children exposed to high levels of parental stress, which secretes chemicals cortisol and epinephrine in the brain, can develop anxious behaviors due to the modification of their neurology by these excess chemicals and therefore come to interpret life as though stress and danger is always present because of their intense early exposure.
But what does this have to do with birth order? A baby’s genes are known to be more susceptible to epigenetic and other genetic modifications and defects according the increasing age of his parents. Basically, our ability to produce happy and healthy children diminishes with age and new research in the field has revealed that fathers can carry a burden of this problem in their sperm just as woman do in their older eggs.
A child’s IQ has been observed to diminish a point or two with every child born into the family, starting with the oldest and going to the youngest. Now the real culprit for diminished IQ is difficult to scientifically determine because there are so many factors at play, but it is fair to state that both nature and nurture contribute. Mothers are less careful with each passing pregnancy and that can affect their unborn children. Parents also have less time to care for and discipline each extra child, less money to go around, older and worn out bodies, increased lack of novelty in and interest in parenting and less patience. It is not that parents are apathetic after their first child, just tired in body and mind and it affects the way they care for their children. These changes in parenting practices can influence children, but not to as serious degree as some professionals want you to believe.
Nature Affects Nurture
All children are unique, even identical multiples are genetic individuals thanks to the science epigenetics. It is impossible to parent every children in the same way and nor should one attempt this feat. The truth is that as much as we think we are shaping our children with our parenting, our children’s one-of-a-kind needs and personalities are shaping us and the way that we parent them. Parenting is a two way street.
A child’s nature determines how we can and choose to nurture them. For example, a fussy and sensitive baby will cause his parents to likely be more uptight and rigid. The parents will stick to the recommended schedules and be less willing to go out on a limb and try new things for fear of setting their child onto a collision course. Parents of easy going children will have more options and freedom in how they parent. Their flexibility and freedom to be more true to themselves within their role as a parent will shape and change their child through these unique experiences. A family is an organism consisting of multiple individual parts that function together towards one common goal- survival. Our children are dependent upon us and in a way we are dependent upon them. A family is beautifully symbiotic.
Unlike what many neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists may pronounce, our consciousness cannot be boiled down to our chemical make-up, DNA nor our survivalist nature. Humankind is so much more complex, beautiful and significant. Our consciousness is an amalgamation of all these factors, but also unparalleled among earth’s animals earth and this fact is what makes us unique among our own kind. We are so much more than who we are supposed to be. We are a living potential and can overcome stereotypes and the odds. Who is your child telling you they want to be? Give children freedom to dream, experiment and learn and watch them blossom in the freedom from the limitations that we so easily place upon them.