Our life depends on when we get there

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Stumbled over an article on one of my favorite subjects last week, the more amazing because of the case in point in our family.

The subject: birth order, also known as family position, or the impact of where one is in a family, whether one is an only child, or the only one of his sex, etc. You can imagine the complications of life as the oldest of six, the younger of two spaced apart by 20 years, or the first of an all-girl family. Etc., again.

I came across an article published in 1989 in The Circle, a monthly publication of Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York. The writer is Ana Timmons who interviewed Dr. Kevin Leman, a Tucson psychologist who wrote The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. My interest was piqued because our grandchildren represent many of the more interesting configurations of birth order.

Briefly, first-borns are often authoritarian perfectionists, perhaps because they had more time and affection poured over them when they were young. There are often fewer pictures in the second child’s baby book, and a third child may fly under the radar altogether.

Please note, for goodness sake, this is not hard and firm science but does occur well beyond simple chance.

Think of your own family. Has the eldest become an autocrat, always in charge, picky about food, the darling of his parents?

Consider the middle child. Now we get into gender. If the first was a boy and the second child a girl, she may have first-born characteristics because she is the first of her sex.

First-borns who marry first-borns may have their hands full, each being an oldest and used to being the decision-maker.

Dave’s mother loved traditional boy things – cars, ball games, construction sites – and looked forward to having boys. The first was a girl. I didn’t know the family then, of course, but it did seem to me that the second-born, Dave, was her favorite. So he became a “first-born” even though technically he was the second. (The third was another boy.)

And me? A first-born, with a younger brother. I’ve always been blamed for being assertive and insisting on having my own way. That’s all right. I was clearly aware that Fred was my mother’s favorite and I was my Dad’s.

The Withnells of Leesburg, Virginia, may baffle the statisticians at first glance. Fairly close in age, we have Abigail, Esther, and Isaac. Abigail is the organizer, a role that came naturally when her mother died. Abigail briefly became the caretaker of her younger sibs.

Esther seemed to have braved the rough waters of bereavement as cheerfully as a youngster could. But there’s still a lot of pain there. She’s going to college, is working for a bank, and shares a room with two other young women.

Isaac was the baby of the family, cherished by his sisters and barely reminiscent of his mother’s death. He seems to have thrived in his family position.

When our Jean married into this family, no one really expected her to add to it, but add she did: Samuel, now 5, and Uriah, who is 3 and the class clown.

See what happens in a matter of months? Isaac moves from youngest-with-two-older-sisters to oldest-of-three-boys and, at 16, is now their protector and caretaker. This arrangement works wonderfully for Jean. With Isaac being home-schooled and still without a driver’s license, she can easily run brief errands, knowing the boys are safe at home.

And Isaac? From third in the first family to oldest of three in the second family, suddenly dubbed “Sir Isaac, responsible for, ohh, everything.” A pivotal position if I ever saw one.

From Dr. Leman who wrote the book:

More than half the presidents of the United States were first-borns. First-borns love jobs requiring precision and concentration. They crave structure and migrate toward the professions like science, medicine, and law. They are perfectionists, list makers, computer dudes, and journalists.

The middle child is born too late, says Leman. Too late for the privileges of the first-born, but too soon to get away with relaxed discipline.

Middle children rarely make it to the baby book. Leman says it looks as though the camera suddenly broke when they were born. Middle children are mediators, team players, rebellious, and misunderstood.

The youngests are “cuddled and coddled,” and seem to succeed best in marriage because they are used to compromise and mediation. The youngest is the last to learn to tie her own shoes, and the last to leave home. She may be described as charming and manipulative, temperamental and precocious.

Last-borns are often not taken seriously, and live in the shadow of their older siblings. So the youngest learns to get laughs and admiration, even scoldings – anything to get attention.

Talk about fate. Our deal in life depends on when we get there.

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