It has long been known that birth order affects personality to some extent.  I remember observing that quite a few of the people I worked with in a corporate firm seemed to be oldest children.  Their younger siblings often enjoyed more relaxed careers, happy to cruise through life a bit more (although they were often very successful at whatever they cruised into, while somehow avoiding all the achievement angst of their older sibling!).  

In fact, some researchers believe birth order is on par with genetics in influencing behaviour.  A recent study published by Oxford University press noted this and among its conclusions was:

When more than one child is studied per family, it is apparent that siblings in the same family experience considerably different environments, in terms of their treatment of each other, in their peer interactions, and perhaps in terms of parental treatment.

It is interesting to note that no two children in the same family actually have the same set of parents or the same family experience.  Most people will change their parenting style as they go along.  They will likely read every Little Einstein book to the firstborn and have a strict bedtime routine and discipline strategies all worked out.  By the time the third or fourth baby comes along, they will probably be a little more relaxed and also have less time.

A second or third child is also born into a vastly different family environment to a first or only child.  The eldest child will likely already have assumed the position of leader – no matter what age they are they are always the responsible ‘oldest’.  The middle children might well have to fight for attention, while the youngest child will probably get away with bending bedtimes and rules a lot more.  You might be interested to take the test proposed by a recent Huffington Post article:  

You’re going on a family road trip with your adult siblings. Which of these three scenarios sounds most like you?

1. You’ve been planning it for weeks, secured the hotel rooms, made restaurant reservations, had the car’s oil changed and have a tank full of gas — and you’ve mapped out rest stops along the way.

2. You’ve been rushing all morning trying to get things together, eventually throwing snacks and clothes haphazardly into your bags at the last minute. If you’re the one driving, you hope you can find a gas station and fill up your half-empty tank on the road.

3. Family trip? Sounds like fun! You’re just along for the ride with no pre-planned contributions except your entertaining funny stories and jokes. You enjoy the snacks your older siblings have packed in the car, and you realize you might need to buy a weather-appropriate coat when you arrive to your destination.

If #1 sounds familiar, you are likely the eldest child. If the second scenario describes you well, you are probably a middle child. If you relate the most to the third scenario, then you are most likely the baby of the family.

The article goes on to state that birth order matters because “while the eldest child is programmed for excellence and achievement, the middle child is raised to be understanding and conciliatory and the baby seeks attention. As a result, birth order is a powerful variable in the unfolding of your personality.”

Does this mean that the personality makeup of our population will gradually change if we all have fewer children?  We have already seen this happen through China’s one child policy and the much talked about ‘little emperor syndrome’ of so many doted on only children.  Will being a ‘middle child’ peacemaker become less and less common as more people choose to have two children – just an ‘oldest’ and a ‘youngest’?  

It could influence the job market if we’re all trying to fight our way into leadership positions, and it could influence society if we have fewer ‘conciliatory’ personalities among us.  While many factors influence personality, from what I have seen in those around me, birth order and siblings is certainly one of them.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...