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Sibling Birth Order: Myths and Misconceptions

Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Alyson Schafer as a LifeTales guest blogger. Ms Schafer is a parenting expert based in Toronto, Canada, who makes regular media appearances. Her books include Breaking the Good Mom Myth, Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, and Ain’t Misbehavin’: Tactics for Tantrums.

By Alyson Schafer

I talk with a lot of parents. In these conversations, I’ve heard just about every myth about sibling birth order.

Put your hand up if you’re heard any of these misconceptions:

  • Older siblings turn into bossy, high-achievers.
  • Middle children always end up feeling left out.  
  • Youngest siblings keep up the baby routine long past the sell-by date.
  • Only children are lonely, spoiled, selfish, poorly socialized—take your pick.

It’s easy to make assumptions like these about children and their sibling. While it’s true that siblings do affect a child’s family life, we don’t always put the impact in the right places.

Myth #1: Getting hung up on birth numbers

Alfred Adler in a file photo from the Alfred Adler Center International. He is wearing glasses, a suit and tie, and looking right into the camera, one finger thoughtfully posed to the left side of his face. Adler's ideas about individual
Alfred Adler is known for his work in individual psychology and ideas of inferiority. Image courtesy of the Alfred Adler Center International.

Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was an Austrian medical doctor and psychotherapist known for his ideas about individual psychology and inferiority. He was also one of the first psychotherapists to think about families, children, birth order, and personality development.

Sometimes, people interpret Adler’s work to mean that a child’s birth number matters most (e.g., being born first or second or fifth). But that view oversimplifies what’s happening.

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t step into the same river twice?” Adler’s ideas about children and personality are similar. Each child’s birth changes the family in the same way that putting your foot in the water changes the river.

Adler was interested in how children change their family’s internal dynamics, and how their personalities changed in turn. There’s a lot more give an take than relying on the birth number allows.

Children are creative meaning makers

Two siblings lie together on a park blanket on a warm day, grinning at the camera. Both boys are dressed in jeans and button-down shirts.
Your children’s perspective on their role in the family may surprise you. Be open to their ideas. Photo by Edward Cisneros via Unsplash.

Instead of their birth order in the family, the child plays a big role in deciding how they fit.

Somewhere during their first four or five years, children begin exploring the benefits and disadvantages of their role in the family. Some things they will accept, and some they will reject.

For example, consider a boy born into a family of girls.

  • One boy might decide his situation makes him special because he stands out.
  • Another boy might decide, “I don’t fit in with my sisters because I’m not a girl.”

So, while birth order may factor into this self-evaluation, the child decides on their role. Their subsequent decisions shape both them and their siblings. 

Myth #2: Only children are deprived by not having siblings

A toddler agilely climbs out of a sandbox, ready to explore and make mistakes on their own terms. Only children don't require siblings to be happy.
Give children space to learn, make mistakes and set their own standards. Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash.

This myth is entirely ungrounded. As any only child will tell you, siblings are not required for human happiness.

Only children are likely to:

  • Spend more time with adults.
  • Develop a big vocabulary through conversations with adults.
  • Get more attention without built-in playroom competition.

But, a child’s response depends on the creative meaning they perceive. They might decide to fit in by acting like a mini adult. Or, they might feel intimated by the competent giants all around them and withdraw.

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about being an only child. Here are some common fears parents have, and a few ways to lessen those concerns: 

  • No built-in playmates. Parents may fear their child will grow up with poor socialization skills without siblings. Try joining playgroups and scheduling play dates with same-age children. Your child will gain social skills, form relationships and learn how to set and respect boundaries. (You might make new friends, too.)
  • Desire to please adults. Without other children around, only children often play more with their parents and other adults. It’s easy to develop a short feedback loop between the child’s action and the parent’s praise, intervention, or suggestions to improve. By sitting back, parents can allow the child to experiment. Emphasize that mistakes are okay, and encourage your child to adopt their progress, not your adult abilities, as their standard for success.
  • Tendencies to loneliness. Rather than something to be feared, alone time gives children the space to explore their interests and passions. Children who spend time alone can become accustomed to entertaining themselves and genuinely enjoy their own company. It’s also a useful skill in adulthood.

Myth #3: Having more children deprives kids of their parents’ attention

Two siblings play together by the shore at sunset.
Bigger families and more siblings create different growth paths for kids. Photo by Limor Zellermayer on Unsplash.

What’s the flip side about myths for only children? That having a baby (or many babies) deprives your toddlers and older children of your attention.

It’s true that having more children increases the demands on parents’ time and attention. Like only children, first-born children experience constant attention from their parents during their first years at home. As a group, they tend to be well-behaved and focused on pleasing adults.

As new siblings enter the family dynamic, some children choose to define their roles in opposition to those their siblings hold. Here’s a few patterns you might see if:

  • The eldest slept through the night, your next children may be more fitful.
  • Your older child only likes meat and carbs, your second child might embrace vegetables and fruit.
  • The oldest child is a model kid, younger children may take the position of being good at bad behavior. Expect to see more naughtiness and challenges to your authority if your child chooses this role. Alternatively, if your oldest child sees a sibling’s birth as a threat to their position, they may start to act out and misbehave. In those cases, the second child may orient themselves to being the “good one.” 

If you spend time with children, you’ll notice they’re very interested in what other children do and say. Observing older children one way in which kids learn and differentiate themselves from each other.

You can expect children with older siblings to:

  • Look up to their older siblings. And, they’ll try very hard to physically keep up to avoid missing anything.
  • Take bigger risks, with less concerned with perfection and mistake making.
  • Express an ambitious “go-for-it” attitude.

Creating positive sibling dynamics in your family

Two siblings run together in a city street. They are holding hands.
Let your children set the tone for their sibling dynamic. Your interpretations won’t necessarily be how they view their role in the family. Photo by Wayne Lee-Sing on Unsplash.

As many philosophers have noted, there’s no one way to be a family. As you bring more children into your household, here are some takeaway thoughts to keep in mind.

  1. Observe what your children do and say about their family role. Don’t assume their experience will match yours or project your ideas about what it should be. It’ll give you a clearer understanding and opportunity to course correct as needed.
  2. Give each child the space to play, learn and make mistakes. Whether you have one child or 10, accept each for their uniqueness.
  3. What’s fair isn’t always what’s needed. Many parents adopt scrupulous fairness as a way of not playing favorites. Not only is policing fairness exhausting, if children complain about a sibling-related injustice, they may be expressing a different need. Making everything equal only serves to increase the competitive nature of the relationship between siblings. They will become bean counters, assessing fairness in all things. Life isn’t fair, and sometimes the needs of one demands different time, attention, resources.  Get curious and ask questions about what your children need and how their needs may be different.
  4. Do your best. As adults, children from big families often note that while the first child’s babyhood is lovingly documented, the third child is lucky if there’s a picture. So, accept that your experience with each child will also be different as your family grows . And, make space for your ideas to similarly shift.

We’d love to hear from you

What was your sibling experience? How does it differ from your children’s experience? We’d love to hear about your journey. Drop us a line at hello@lifetales.com.

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