CHILDREN / Why John Boy is a mixed-up kid: Everybody has a view about how their place in the family pecking order affected their personality. Deborah Holder considers how far cod psychology is backed up by fact

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'CAROLINE was always very difficult, but she's the middle one and I know they're often problem children.'

'I'M THE eldest and I think it had pros and cons. I always had a special position in the family, but I had to take on responsibilities earlier. My parents expected more of me.'

'I KNOW I was too protective with my youngest; I think people often are with the baby of the family. She remained dependent on me for longer than the others, and even now she's much more emotionally attached.'

MOST PEOPLE have a view about the significance of a child's place in the family pecking order, based on their own experience either as a child or as a parent. There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it makes a difference, but is there any proof?

The effect of birth order on personality development was one of the earliest subjects to interest psychologists. Their research, based on what has proved to be statistically invalid evidence, confirmed the existing folklore and created yet more mythology. One of the lasting myths, that first-born children are high achievers, is based on research done in 1879. This 'proved' the proposition by examining the achievements of the first-born sons of eminent gentlemen, whose names had been gathered from biographical dictionaries and encyclopaedias - hardly a representative group.

A century later, the prevailing view is that while a child's position in the family may affect its view of the world, other factors play as important a role. There can be no simple blueprint. This was the conclusion of two Swiss psychologists, Julius Ernst and Cecile Angst, who set out to review the acres of research. Their findings were published in 1982 in a book dedicated to their children (four Ernsts and two Angsts), 'whose personalities', they humbly acknowledged, 'still puzzle their parents'.

Although they found a degree of validity in some of the traditional beliefs about birth order (see 'First past the post' box on opposite page), Ernst and Angst believed that most research supporting its role was methodologically flawed. In psycho-jargon, the main problem was 'failure to control background variables'. In other words, there were many other factors aside from birth order (size of family, spacing between children and their sex, economic circumstances, warring versus happy parents) which might have affected the results but had not been taken into account.

For example, researchers neglected sociological factors such as the tendency, in some cultures, of families with daughters to keep having children until they produce a son. In research into youngest children, therefore, boys were over-represented yet gender was not taken into account. Ernst and Angst also found that most studies were based largely on middle-class families because they were statistically more likely to volunteer for research.

So why are we so wedded to the myths about birth order, and why do most people's experiences seem to confirm them? In part, say Ernst and Angst, it may be a case of self-fulfilling prophesy. If parents have preconceptions about well-balanced first-borns, dependent youngest siblings and problem children in between, they may well produce just that as they unintentionally 'socialise' their children according to their own deep-rooted beliefs.

Ernst and Angst do accept the implications of studies into the different ways we socialise our children - for example, that first-borns are often 'better cared-for and enjoy more linguistic stimulation' in infancy (presumably due to keen, maybe over-anxious, first-time parents who also have more time on their hands before number two arrives). At pre-school age, however, these same children tend to be treated more critically and with slightly less affection (see 'dethronement' box below).

This may come as a relief to many who, from personal experience, find it hard to accept the scientific view that birth order has no proven importance. Emma, 29, is the eldest of four children. She feels that, as the first child and first grandchild, she was undoubtedly spoilt - and to an extent still is.

'I was the apple of my mum's eye; there is a feeling of being special when you're the first. I remember my grandmother telling me that it would never be the same with the others, though obviously she would never have said that to them. I'm used to coming first, and I'm aware that the others were always under pressure because of me. I've done well in career terms and they've copped the backlash. You know the kind of thing: 'Why can't you be more like your big sister?' '

Another eldest child, Maria, identifies strongly with this - especially now that she is a mother herself. 'I understand it better since having my own children. The first child has to end up special. It doesn't mean you love them more or less; it's simply that you're only pregnant for the first time once, and you only give birth for the first time once. The next ones are magic, too, but they can't be the same.'

By contrast, Grace is a youngest child with two older sisters and one older brother. 'My decisions were always more readily accepted by my parents,' she says. 'I think my sisters had a harder time in that respect; they paved the way for me. People say I'm more confident than the others, which may be to do with the fact that I was always trusted to do the right thing on my own, whereas they weren't'

Colette is a 24-year-old nanny who, having looked after a range of children, says she distrusts birth order theories. 'I think it's entirely up to the parents. Children are individuals and it's a question of whether parents recognise this.' This is fine in theory, but at the same time Colette acknowledges that she could be described as a classic middle child:

'My older sister was the apple of my parents' eye and the younger one was the baby of the family. I always seemed to get the blame for things she'd done, and I often felt left out. These were small things like clothes; the baby had a lot of new stuff bought for her, and my older sister had everything new because she was the first. I always got hand-me-downs. My parents had much higher expectations of my older sister at school. She wanted to be a cosmetician but my father insisted she did her A-levels. No one batted an eyelid when I said I was leaving school to do catering. As a result I'm much more independent. My younger sister still lives at home and my older one, who only left home to marry, still lives in the area. I had to get out and left home at 16. While the other two had always had things done for them, I was used to taking care of myself.'

Although these insights seem to confirm certain patterns for oldest, youngest and middle children, Ernst and Angst argue that it is possible to find a rationale for anything. Take anxiety. There are a number of post hoc explanations that could be found to link anxiety to birth order, all equally plausible. If a youngest sibling seems more anxious, it may be because she was for many years weaker and more dependent on others. Equally, if a first-born is more anxious, it could be put down to incoherent treatment at the hands of inexperienced first-time parents. Or, if the middle child has a problem with anxiety, it may be because, as neither precious first-born nor baby of the brood, he or she feels neglected.

The expert's expert on siblings is Professor Judy Dunn, an English psychologist based at Pennsylvania State University. Dunn believes birth order has some relevance, but she does not see it as a key to personality development. Like Ernst and Angst, she emphasises the complexity of the picture.

For some children birth order can be crucial, she says, but for others it is not. For a start, there are many other pieces in the jigsaw which are at least as important as birth order. Second, individual differences between first, second and later-borns are enormous - as are the different ways in which parents respond to their various children. Not only will children respond differently to shared experiences because they perceive them differently, but there will be very real differences in terms of the way the children are treated.

Despite strong social pressure on parents to treat their children the same way (or at the very least, to say they do), favouritism is very real. When mothers taking part in a large study were asked about their relationship with their two children, only a third could honestly confirm that they felt the same intensity for both, and gave equal attention to both.

The evidence for straightforward birth order theories looks poor. So why do so many people remain convinced there is something to them? Regardless of the research, when a layperson identifies someone they know as a classic baby of the family, they are often right; when perceptive adults explain relationships with reference to their children's positions in the family, their analysis often makes sense.

Psychologists call this 'selective attention', the process whereby people remember the incidents that confirm their preconceptions and conveniently forget the rest. But while there are clearly enormous differences between individuals which transcend birth order, common experience suggests that it has some lasting effect, no matter how small.-

(Photographs omitted)