Birth Order

All of us, as members of families and have some understanding of birth order. If you’re the oldest, you were told to look after your siblings. If you are the middle, you know how to make peace or find a compromise. If you are a last born, someone was looking after you, so risk seemed less scary. This classic birth order works simply if there is less than a 4-year spread between the children in a family. However, if there is more than a 4-year spread, in a family some else can also demonstrate a first-born mentality.

Families with a spread of more than four years present differently.  A spread of more than 4 years generally means that some sibling passes through the lower, middle or upper form years without a siblings coming in behind them or being there before. Hopefully the chart below can help visually explain what I am trying to explain. This chart is representative a family six children but it could also represent what a two child family with a six year age spread also looks like.


The 5th child who is beyond the 4-year spread is emotionally more similar to the first child although that child is almost the youngest child in the family.

A classic presentation of birth order can be demonstrated more simply in a family of three children, I’ll use all girls. The first daughter is Sansa. She recognizes authority and feels the most comfortable going along with her parents’ request. She understands that she has a responsibility to look after her younger siblings because her parents tell her this is a part of being the oldest. The second daughter is Daenerys. She has a brief run as the youngest until the third girl is born. As the middle, she is required to listen to her older sister and must look out for her younger sister. This means she is constantly searching for her own independence. She feels like her identity has more pressure put upon it than her siblings.  At the end is Arya, the third. She feels that she is forever being looked after and any mistakes and trouble she might face are all known, so less stress is put upon her to do things right.  These 3 females have a 4-year spread–Sansa in third grade, Daenerys in second and Arya in first. They will all have some time together in the three divisions of primary and secondary schooling. They move as a unit.

To expand on the birth order concept, here is my own experience. As the second child in a family of two children, I was able to watch my brother circumvent family dynamics before I had to be adept.  Unlike my brother, I had his failures and successes to absorb before I had to navigate on my own. But, given that I was female, and my older sibling is male, I was not home free to just follow his lead.  Using Dr. Robert Hurst’s birth order jargon to describe my own place–I am a 2/1.  Since there is only a two year difference between my age and brother’s, I am a second child, but because I am the first female child–I am also the first-born female –hence the 2/1 designation. Pondering such a model is fascinating, but adding a middle child and/or gender variation expands the dynamic further.

Unfortunately, there is not enough room to discuss all the varieties of groupings, but if you have siblings who are similar in gender, then there are gender models that a younger sibling can study for proficiency.  As one might imagine, as a little sister with a big brother, I could play a mean game of baseball and knew how to catch tadpoles with great efficiency. My doll skills were acquired on my own or through play with my girl cousins. My ability to circumvent my family, however, required less effort than my brother had to put forth and I was less ridged about following my parents’ exact instruction.

Hopefully this will give you a good idea of how birth order really works.  For fun, I give the birth order of some of the most influential people of the 20th century.

1st Born                      Albert Einstein – passion for discovery and establishing ideas.

2nd Born                     Martin Luther King, Jr. – passion to find peaceful ground.

3rd Born (youngest)      Harriet Tubman – passion to push change forward.

Like branches on a tree
we grow in different directions
yet our roots remain as one.

Supplemental Material


BB1The Berenstain Bears Collection Stan & Jan Berenstain

Odd as it may seem, there are few books that focus on the overall sibling dynamic. Stan and Jan Berestain are a part of the select f ew writers and illustrators that focus on this particular subject.

BB2In their gentle and silly way, they present scenarios that the bear siblings need to work through – problems that challenge all children on their way to being individuals.

BB4It is key to help our children understand that they are not experiencing anything new and that they will eventually learn how to navigate complex relationships. Friends can come and go but siblings know your BB3history and will be with you beyond friends.


BirthOrderThere is not a definitive book on the subject of birth order. However, depending on what level of understanding you wish to have I’ve recommended the following three books.

The Birth Order Book Dr. Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman approaches the subject matter in a very straightforward and appreciable tack. He has more than one book on the subject and does a very responsible job of defining the benefits and difficulties that the first, middle and last born child face.

FingerprintsLife’s Fingerprints Dr. Robert V. V. Hurst

Dr. Hurst is very responsible, but he follows a mathematical approach to birth order. It is from him that I learned the term my own birth order as a 2/1.

RebelBorn to Rebel Dr. Frank J. Sulloway

The most noted of these three authorizes on birth order is Dr. Sulloway. He is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject throughout the world. His book is very detailed and discusses many of his own research efforts. He flips the reader back and forth between the birth order of known historical individuals and the theory t o help form a full picture. Dr. Sulloway can add more weight to his observations because as a professor at UCB he has a research team that aids him


Question for Lonna

It is interesting to see that Time Magazine has recently published a special issue on sibling science. While in class, there is a strong focus on children as a member of a lar ger community, but when they go home they return to their smaller world. Although birth order is not something foreign to any of us, it is a notable a ttribute to keep in mind
through the developmental process.

It is important for parents to consider how child #1 can differ in personality characteristics from child #2, or twins who mak e up child #2 and #3 might be different from child #4 or #5 as the patterns can be imagined many ways.

As parents nurture their combination through various stages and phases, it helps to recall the basics of birth order. As an educator who has taught and stewarded many children from the same family in the past few decades, what can you offer as advice and/or support?

My first childhood memories are expectantly awaiting the birth of my baby sister. I could not wait, at five years old, to teacher her things. I was so very thankful my mother was giving me my very own living doll. Nearly fifty years later, my sister would retell her childhood as a series of events which always involved me bossing her around, correcting her, eating her unfinished food (without permission), telling off any foe, and going with her now husband to pick out her engagement ring.

It is all of this tha t must have flashed through her when our most divine little diva in her class (yes, she teaches in my school) announced yesterday “ Mama is having a baby sister for me!” My baby sister looked at me and said, “ Oh the poor baby sister.”

I have an only child. As they say, look up Only Child in any dictionary and his picture is there. When he was three years old he suddenly had to share his mother (whom he has always called “Lonna” as do many only children do. With no sibling to remind them they are a child in the relationship, only children tend to think they are their parent’s peer) with first six then thirty other childr en in pre school. I began to see the glaring difference between an only child and the rest of the world. They must be taught empathy and kindness and sharing. They are masters of language, and the nuanced adult conversations.

Do not misunderstand, my son had what any American would call a normal childhood, largely due to our move to the suburbs. I realized he needed to be immersed in a community where his neighborhood friends became like family members. He went off to UCLA with that “brother from another mother” and even post graduation, they remain roommates in LA.

I am mindful of each child’s birth order at school. All of my twins know which was born first and by how many minutes. My teachers are very aware. We work to help the eldest learn not to micro manage everyone, the middle to step up and take more personal responsibility and the youngest to be kind to everyone as they tend to be even more demanding than the only child.

Mostly, though, we at Playgroup operate as a community where individuals co-exist as peers. Where the youngest is required to have responsibilities and the eldest can actually step back and not feel responsible for everyone.

Except for me. I am the eternal older sister who “helps” everyone. Or, as my sister would say, I continue to be the Bossy Boss.

Lonna Corder
Executive Director, Playgroup