How a Child’s Birth Order Affects Personality

Only-Children and Firstborns May Have an Edge Because of Parental Expectations and Involvement

Copyright © 2012 ; all Rights Reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission; Posted May 22, 2012


Siblings enjoying the beach; photo courtesy Kelly Smith


Beginning about 125 years ago, a number of studies have sought to determine similar birth-order differences. Specifically, they have been trying to find formative influences of the order of sibling birth order on the subsequent person’s personality traits.

As a typical example, one specific study suggests that a typical trend is for parents to encourage their firstborn or only children to pursue a more distinguished career path, such as becoming a doctor or lawyer.

On the other hand, they tend to assume a more relaxed parenting approach with subsequent children. The theory is that the different parenting approaches have an influence on personality.

Logically, it is safe to discard some older studies out of hand. For example, Francis Galton, in 1874, didn’t count female children in the data he used when he published English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture,.

This one fact alone would skewed any derived results enormously. As just one consequence, consider that a male subject would have been documented as a firstborn even if he had four older sisters. By this time, parenting skills would have been firmly established.

Are Studies Skewed by Disregarding Variables?

But some scientists are suspicious of the results of these studies. Some variables such as the quantity of household money and time dedicated to raising children over the span of time are significant concerns.

To compound effects of these variables, in larger families, they are spread much thinner than they are in families with fewer members. To make the situation even more convoluted, family size may be associated with many other variables.

Some of these secondary variables include ethnicity, location (urban or rural), education, primary language of the parents, and financial concerns.

Interesting Order-of-Birth Personality Trends

Whether or not you consider any particular study scientifically sound or valid, the emerging statistics illustrate some interesting trends. Here are a few:

  • Out of the initial 23 astronauts who voyaged into space, 21 of them were oldest or only children. Case in point; all 7 of the original Mercury astronauts were firstborns.

  • In a 2007 survey of corporate leaders, conducted by an international organization of CEOs, stated that a full 43% of CEOs were actually firstborns, 33% were middle-borns, and finally 23% were last-borns. The pattern is very telling.

  • In a study that involved 67 firstborn and 99 later-born male college students, it was found that generally, later-borns are much more likely to become involved in a dangerous sport than firstborns are.

    This particular study compared the subject’s preference for participating in sports such as karate, football, lacrosse, sky diving, ski jumping, and motorcycle racing, and many others. This seems to translate into the pursuit of an outdoor occupation.

    It has been suggested that overprotective parents fear for their firstborn’s safety. This seems to reflect that the theory that parents may be more anxious about the activities of an only child, while parents of several children may have a more relaxed approach.

A Case of Sentimentality

One survey asked 76 pairs of high-school-aged siblings to rate themselves on a range of personality factors. It found that more younger siblings evaluated themselves as higher in the sentimental and forgiving categories than their older siblings.

The same survey of high-school-aged siblings determined that more older siblings tended to say that they considered themselves perfectionists by nature. So why do junior siblings achieve better grades than older ones?

There are a variety of uncorroborated opinions on this. In one research study of sibling relationships, scientists promoted the theory that junior siblings tend to be mentored by their older siblings. They embody the need to be more competitive and have much more confidence in conquering obstacles simply because they have witnessed their siblings overcome the same challenges.


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