Birth Order and Spacing

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Birth order is defined as the science or method of understanding the dynamics of an individual's place in the family. A large amount of research has been conducted on birth order, also known as ordinal birth position. Birth order has fascinated parents, physicians, and others for over one hundred years, in part because everyone is a participant. Everyone is born into a family and thus are affected, one way or another, by birth order position. In fact, the dynamics and persuasive influences brought on by birth order between family members are often unmistakable.

Effects of Birth Order Discovered

Alfred Adler, one of the first psychologists to examine birth order, used the term "family constellation" to help explain some of the personality differences that tend to develop within families. This research into family dynamics evolved from the study of genetics. Scientists found that the influence of genetics alone did not explain the extreme differences in children from the same family.

Although Adler frequently is mentioned as one of the fathers of birth order research, much of what he hypothesized has been refuted. For example, Adler claimed that second-born children were the highest achievers because of their relatively relaxed style. After numerous subsequent studies on birth order, however, it is now generally accepted that firstborns typically achieve the most and are often more intelligent than other siblings. Interestingly, of the first twenty-three American astronauts sent into outer space, twenty-one were firstborns and the other two were only children.

Since Adler, social scientists have spent a considerable amount of time asking the basic question of whether birth order makes any difference in how we develop as individuals. Generally, the answer is yes. A person's birth order position in the family has been linked to differences in achievement, intelligence, attitudes, and behaviors, including the presence of juvenile delinquency, mental illness, and success or failure in marriage. Clearly, however, many people are most interested in the various personality traits or tendencies that accompany the different birth order positions. Moreover, the literature is rather consistent when it comes to identifying these characteristics, one of the few areas where there is general agreement.

Birth Order Characteristics

In what order a child is born into a family is not the only determinant of behavioral characteristics or of future success or failure, but there is little doubt that birth order may influence certain personality traits. Listed below are various characteristics that correspond to the main three birth order positions: oldest/only, middle, and youngest. It is important to remember that these are only tendencies and that environment, genetics, and parenting styles all play a significant role in how children develop as individuals.

Characteristics of Firstborn and Only Children

Firstborn and only children typically get a lot of attention from their parents. Much of what they do is recorded in baby books and little achievements are celebrated as major events, so it is no wonder that these children often develop an appreciation for success and seek ways to acquire new skills. These children are seldom allowed to be just kids. Parents tend to be demanding of firstborn and only children, which leads to high expectations and undue pressure. Typical characteristics of firstborn and only children include:

  • Self-confidence
  • Perfectionism
  • Good organizational skills
  • High achievement goals
  • Scholarliness
  • Conservatism
  • A tendency to make lists
  • Good communication skills with adults

Characteristics of Middle Children

Research indicates that middle children seem to be more relaxed and impartial than their older and younger siblings. They sometimes feel "squeezed" and accordingly develop characteristics that help them negotiate—and sometimes manipulate—their place in the family environment. Because of their ability to play diplomat and peacemaker, they appear to have balanced personalities. Middle children tend to be:

  • Flexible
  • Diplomatic
  • Independent
  • Balanced
  • Resourceful
  • Generous
  • The opposite of their oldest sibling

Characteristics of Youngest Children

As the "babies" of their families, youngest children often do not get enough credit for their accomplishments. Consequently, they may rebel or simply stop trying to please authority figures. Youngest children typically acquire wonderful social skills because of their interactions with older siblings. They are generally charming, playful, and sometimes a little absent-minded. Research seems to indicate that youngest children tend to be attracted to vocations that are people-oriented, such as sales and teaching. Youngest children are inclined to be:

  • Risk takers
  • Outgoing
  • Creative
  • Funny and charming
  • Rebellious
  • Persistent
  • Lacking in self-discipline

The Importance of Spacing

While researchers do not always agree on how spacing (the years between each birth) between siblings influences personality and behavior, there is a general belief that children have an easier adjustment if siblings are not extremely close in age. Sibling rivalry does have a tendency to decrease as the age spread increases, which may result in better-adjusted children. Research indicates that this rivalry is at a peak when there is two year's difference between children. Other variables such as parenting styles, gender, and physical/mental characteristics of the child seem to have more influence on behavioral outcomes than spacing.


While much of the research on birth order is considered useful, many psychologists are quick to point out that it lacks strong scientific merit. One social psychologist has even likened birth order theory to astrology because of its rather liberal and far-reaching implementation. Another mentions that it is often a way for people to deny responsibility for their behavior. Judith Blake, author of Family Size and Achievement (1989), believes the size of the family into which a child is born is more important than the order of births in the family. She argues that the fewer the siblings there are, the more attention each child gets from the parents. And the more attention the child receives, the greater the chances of achievement in school verbal and behavioral skills are used more often through interaction with parents.

Probably the biggest setback to birth order research came from the writings of two Swiss psychologists, Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst. In a noteworthy 1983 critique of over a thousand studies on birth order, Ernst and Angst openly criticized the method by which many of these studies were conducted. Background variables, they argued, were inadequately controlled within the research, thereby rendering much of the significance of birth order useless. They further argued that the differences between families and number of siblings might be the cause for particular trends. A similar critique by Carmi Schooler in the early 1970s also called into question the validity of much of the birth order literature, citing most often poor research design as the culprit in the misrepresentation of the effects of birth order.

Birth Order Today

In spite of these criticisms, research into birth order and its effects on personality, behavior, achievement, and intellect continue. In fact, a comprehensive research project on birth order by Frank Sulloway, called Born to Rebel (1996), seems to refute much of what Ernst and Angst questioned in regard to the significance of birth order on personality and development. Sulloway does this through the use of a sophisticated scientific method called meta-analysis, in which pooled studies are used to increase the statistical significance. In other words, the more data that are examined, the less likely there is for error to occur. It is important to note that as Sulloway reviewed the criticism of Ernst and Angst, he was able to find 196 birth order studies that did meet the standards for what these two researchers called "properly controlled research." Sulloway subsequently examined the five main personality traits and how these relate to human development: openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neurosis (emotional instability), and extroversion. Out of 196 studies, 72 of them substantiated the following components:

  • Openness to experience: Firstborns are more conforming, traditional, and closely identified with parents.
  • Conscientiousness: Firstborns are more responsible, achievement-oriented, and organized.
  • Agreeableness: Latterborns are more easygoing, cooperative, and popular.
  • Neurosis (emotional instability): Firstborns are more jealous, anxious, neurotic, and fearful.
  • Extroversion: Firstborns are more outgoing, assertive, and likely to exhibit leadership qualities.

In addition to contradicting much of the criticism aimed at birth order research, Sulloway's research details his efforts to gather data on thousands of people who were involved in historic controversies. He wanted to know what set apart the rebels from the reactionaries throughout history. His conclusion is one that suggests family structure, not necessarily church, state, or economy, as the impetus to historical change. He makes a case that firstborns, whatever their age, sex, class, or nationality, specialize in defending the status quo while latterborns specialize in toppling it.


Whether or not birth order is accepted as a legitimate means of understanding people, it is difficult to ignore many of the general characteristics and tendencies that seem to attach themselves to the three common ordinal positions. However, it is important to remember that, in the end, it really is up to the individual to shape his or her own tendencies. Each child is unique. Likewise, each family situation is unique. A variety of factors will impact birth order dynamics, including spacing, gender, physical differences, disabilities, birth order position of parents, divorce, and sibling death. Most social scientists will, at the minimum, agree that birth order is simply one of numerous ways to probe the enigma known as the human personality.



Adler, Alfred. Understanding Human Nature. New York: Faucett World Library, 1927.

Blake, Judith. Family Size and Achievement. Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press, 1989.

Ernst, Cecile, and Jules Angst. Birth Order: Its Influence on Personality. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1983.

Leman, K. The New Birth Order Book: Why We Are the Way We Are. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1998.

Schooler, Carmi. "Birth Order Effects: Not Here, Not Now!" Psychological Bulletin 78:161-175.

Sulloway, Frank. J. Born to Rebel: Birth Order Family Dynamics and Creative Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1996.

Sutton-Smith, B., and B. G. Rosenberg. The Sibling. New York:Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1970.

Toman, W. Family Constellation. New York: Springer, 1976.

James A.Troha