You First, Me Second

Back when I lived in New York City and couldn’t figure out what to do with myself, I would sometimes go to the Barnes and Noble on Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street in the Village and read books I would never ever buy.

My favorite among these books was a tome which listed every single day of the year, along with characteristics of persons born on that day. Even as I snorted my contempt about the idea that someone’s date of birth could actually cast some legitimate light on their personality and habits, I would be astounded by how eerily accurate the book’s descriptions were. And each and every time I came back with the birthday of someone new, hoping to disprove the book’s accuracy, I was thwarted.

Along those same lines, I’ve been thinking about birth order lately. I have a girl who’s now six and a boy who is four. I myself was the younger of two siblings. As I watch my kids and the way they are and have been since pretty much they were born, I have to admit that there may be something to this birth order stuff.

A quick literature review tells me that birth order theories are quite controversial. But, those who subscribe to them assert that the oldest child is the most likely to be a high academic achiever and to have a slightly higher IQ, and that older children are far more likely to be demanding and perfectionists, and also depressed and anxious. It is also a known fact that the vast majority of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies happen to be first-borns.

Younger children, on the other hand, are said to be happier and more laid-back. They also can be more sensitive and have a harder time delaying gratification. It is said that they tend to be more idealistic and bigger risk-takers.

These generalities all appear to be true of the dynamics with and between my two kids, as well as my brother and me. But what does that mean for us all? How much of these outcomes is nature versus nurture?

I’m not sure. I’m still considering whether to give it some or any weight in my parenting.

My hunch, though, is that even when there are strong correlations between birth order theories and your children’s personalities and propensities, they should be given little weight in the bigger picture. Theories should remain just that—theories that may or may not apply today, this week, next month or ever. At the end of the day, each of our children is an individual, shaped, guided and taught by a million different experiences he or she has had since birth.

I guess I have a tough time believing in what my mind interprets–perhaps unfairly–as “hocus pocus,” even when I see it with my own eyes or confirm it with my own experiences. In general, the idea of pre-destiny irks me, makes me feel as if I’m somehow unable to change something fate is catapulting me towards. And I just don’t like that.

7 thoughts on “You First, Me Second

  1. While I agree with you that these theories can only be given so much weight, I have to admit that I can think of many, many examples when birth order seems to explain people I know. I’ve only recently begun to think of it in my parenting, though. My children are already playing out their birth order dictates, but I don’t exactly know how to subvert it in order to help them be more well-rounded and more fully themselves. So, how do we use the birth order thing to parent more effectively? That’s the question.

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    1. One thing that occurred me was to take a look at the perceived weaknesses for the child born in that order and help support each kid in those areas (assuming the weaknesses apply). For example, first-borns tend to be perfectionists and like to control circumstances. I talk to my daughter frequently about the fact that things can’t (and shouldn’t) always be perfect. That there are very few things in life that can be deemed “perfect.” I also try to assist her to navigate circumstances that are beyond her control and try to help her be okay with that.

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  2. I think the birth order tendencies are totally nurture, not nature. I think first children had the benefit of being the “only” for a while, and that built a lot of self-confidence from being coddled so much. But on the flip-side so much was put on that child – the hopes and dreams of those parents, lumped all on that one person. The first is expected, even if not consciously by the parents, to be more responsible, to have it more together. That child is idealized, right from the beginning. I think that’s where the perfectionism and need to control comes from. Not wanting to disappoint the parents who subconsciously expect so much.

    The second child, that’s the baby. Freer, with less “stuff” placed on them. My brother says now that my parents were hard on me, and he got by easy. I agree. I think second children get less attention from parents – how many of us with two kids didn’t get around to finishing the baby book for the second child? By the second child you realize that children are only human, not little gods. I think that lack of attention can make children either attention seeking, and therefore they act out, or really independent, and therefore bigger risk-takers in a good way. I know second children who are both ways.

    But I think it’s great that you are trying to counteract those ways in your daughter, Nazie. As a first child, I am definitely a perfectionist, a quintessential first-born. I am pretty self-aware too; I know that I wanted to please my parents, and still feel very much like I don’t want to disappoint them. It’s great that you are letting her know that she can not be perfect and that’s okay with you; that your hopes and dreams don’t have to be her’s. I notice these tendencies in my children as well, and am trying hard to let Ahmir know he doesn’t have to be perfect, that it’s great to me that he just tries.

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  3. I think birth order absolutely affects personality and characteristics, but I agree with LaToya that its nurture, not nature.

    Interestingly enough, I belive in astrology, as I believe in the interconnectedness of the universe and everything/one in it.

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  4. I think it is both nature and nurture, because while there are ways that children are socialized by others to “fit” their birth order, there are also clear distinctions for birth-order and gender, in first-born males and females in particular.

    I remember that book Nazie, had a lot of fun looking up crushes with it to see how “compatible” we were 🙂

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    1. Tanji and Benee: Have you guys ever heard of ennegrams? Someone gave me this book a couple of years ago and IT BLEW MY MIND: “The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types.” And I couldn’t explain any of it logically. All I knew is that it was so right on.

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  5. Don’t get my wrong – I believe in astrology, the meanings connected to birthdays, MBTI, enneagrams, and all that jazz. I just think birth order is nurture because it can be manipulated – think if a child is adopted – the order can change dramatically, and I would bet that a child would was going to be a first-born, but ends up a second born probably acts more like a second-born than the first born they really are.

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