Up to this point in the manual we have dealt primarily with science. I have endeavored to explain how the makeup of an individual’s brain, as well as the functions of the brain as a whole, influences so much of who we are and why we do what we do. It is at this point that I turn and discuss the other side of the coin: your nurture. This will include how you were raised, who raised you, what your birth order is, what external expectations were placed upon you during your upbringing, and how all of this may have led to you living in ways that are dramatically far removed from your natural gifts. I will also discuss the overlays that you will need to keep in mind when helping a person understand their unique brain personality connection.
It is important when working with clients that you keep the whole picture in mind. Each one of us is a unique blend of nature and nurture; no two of us are alike. It is this unique blend that creates the incredibly amazing personalities that we encounter. This information will be a critical tool in helping your clients see where they have been adapting or suppressing their natural gifts throughout their lives, and why. It will also help you to create for them a road map that will lead them to living true to themselves and who they are innately. Let’s begin in the beginning with birth order and how this affects the roles we play in life.
When you read books or articles that discuss birth order it is sometimes uncanny how well the descriptions fit. However, you must keep in mind that the personality traits that you see connected to birth order are due to NUTURE, not the biochemical gifts in the brain. At times the two will match but most often you will find that these traits are more learned behavior than natural gift. Some experts, such as Tyrone Jefferson, Jr. and others, believe that birth order has relatively little to do with your personality. While others, such as Dr. Kevin Leman, feel it explains most of who we are.
However, taking a look at some of the findings can help you understand yourself and others. In reality, there is no greater influence on you during your years growing up than your family. During the very formative years your parents and siblings and, in some cases, grandparents make an indelible psychological impression that will have an effect on your personality.
For now, I will line up the qualities that you tend to see displayed in the three main birth order categories: firstborn, middle children, and the last child-aka the baby of the family.
Firstborn, First of Gender, Only Child, and Functional Firstborn
Let’s take a look at the role that children in this birth order position play in the family unit. In the beginning every firstborn is an only child. This means that the full attention of the parents will be placed on this child; mom and dad have no other children to watch or worry about. With pride they will help this new addition to their family shine. With enormous pride the new parents hope that they will do a better job than their parents and set out to prove it. The result is that firstborns and only children will often learn to speak, walk, and toilet train earlier than any of the following children. They will also tend to excel in school and play the role of “the good student.” This doesn’t mean it is easier for them than children born after them, it just means that more tends to be expected of them.
Firstborns tend to fall naturally into the protector or defender role. While they may not always get along with their siblings in the household, outside of the home is a completely different story. Don’t pick on my little brother/sister or else! Whether it is a pushy neighbor kid, a bully at school, or even an abusive parent, the firstborn will naturally fall into this role.
Even if the parents are very open-minded, because of their birth position, firstborns assume the “in charge” role; it just naturally happens. These traits will often follow the child well into adulthood. They may assume the boss-type position at school and later in the jobs that they choose. According to well-known birth order expert Dr. Kevin Leman, most of the US presidents were either firstborn, functional firstborn, or first of gender. You may ask that wonderful question…why? Why are these traits connected to the firstborn? Let me explain by using my own children as examples.
Alex is my firstborn son. My husband and I received one of the three biggest, most amazing blessing we have ever and will ever have on January 11, 1988. Alex definitely got ALL of our attention. My husband and I agreed that after he was born I would not return to work but instead become a stay-at-home mom. This allowed me to focus all of my attention on my Al Pal. I read to him all of the time, almost never left him with a babysitter, and spent endless hours interacting with only him. He walked by nine months and could carry on a full conversation with you by the age of two. By the time he was five he had the reputation of being a 30-year-old stuck in the body of a 5-year-old because he would carry on such intelligent conversations with anyone who was willing.
When Alex was two we received the second of our three biggest blessings in the form of our awesome son Kasey. When Kasey came home from the hospital Alex’s world and responsibilities dramatically changed; now he was the helper. He would naturally be put in the position of helping out in whatever mom needed. Even if those tasks were small in the beginning, it had a lasting impression on his rapidly forming brain. If I needed help changing Kasey’s diapers, who helped? Alex. If I was busy preparing dinner and Kasey would cry who did I ask to push the swing or hold the bottle? Alex. As the boys got older when the younger ones would get sick and I had to go to the store for Tylenol, who would I place in charge? Alex.
There is nothing wrong with any of the things that I just mentioned. Perfectly natural right? Of course, but the roll that Alex had to fill, by order of his birth, was clear and the lifelong effects were in motion. It was what it was.
You can see by this example how the firstborn will naturally fall into roles and responsibilities that any children born after them will not have to fill. Here is a list of some personality traits that you will often find displayed by those with this birth order.
- High Achievers
- Score well in school
- Rule followers
Some traits that may not always be positive
- Need for approval
- Know it all
- Defensive about errors or mistakes
What if the firstborn is also an only child? While some of the roles that the firstborn with siblings play (i.e. protector) will not apply to the only child, most of the other traits will, and sometimes these are displayed in an even more profound way. If there is only one child in the family then ALL of the attention is on that child ALL of the time and for their WHOLE life. Imagine that kind of pressure! While they never have to compete with any siblings for their parent’s attention, all of the attention can result in a higher level of expectation. Plus, all of this attention can lead to social difficulties later in life. They never had to share a room, fight for the front seat in the car, or argue with a sibling over a toy. Therefore, they might have difficulty “playing with others” throughout their lives. Their normal role of being the center of attention while growing up can make it difficult for them for them to make adjustments when they enter the work force and are just another one of the employees. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the only child will have difficult personalities to get along with. I am saying that their early life influences can create unique obstacles.
Firstborn of gender can also, at times, fill some of the same roles as the natural firstborn. For example, if the firstborn is a girl and the second child is a boy (first of gender) he will most likely assume the “protector” role and the “take charge” role. These are traits that are often times expected in a male so, even if he is the second child, if he is the first boy he will most often be expected to ‘step up to the plate.’
If the first child is a boy and the second is a girl (first of gender), she will often be expected to take up the role of caregiver for any younger siblings. She may also be a high achiever in school. Remember the unit on the difference between the male and female brains? She will most likely read earlier and spell better than her older brother so the high scholastic expectations will now fall to her.
What is the functional firstborn? They are the child that, no matter what their natural birth order is, will fill the role of the firstborn. Most often this is due to a disability, illness, or death of the natural firstborn. According to Frank Sulloway, researcher on birth order and academic achievement, functional birth order, not biological birth order, is critical in personality development; basically, no matter what your natural birth order may be, it will be trumped by your functional birth order.
Take my brother-in-law, Tim, for example. He is the natural third child/last born. His sister, who was born first, is moderately to severely developmentally disabled. His brother, who was born second, was mildly developmentally disabled. So, when Tim was born and he had no disability the pressure for him was really on. He was the only one who could be responsible, so he was expected to be the picture of responsibility. He was the only one who could get good grades, so of course he was expected to. It is in this way that some children not born into a family first will function as the firstborn.
Ah, the middle child/children. So often I have heard the statement: “Oh, he must be the middle child.” What is it about being born in between the first and the last that results in a different set of pressure for the middle born? Well, let’s take a look.
At first the middle child is in the coveted last born or “baby” spot. They are the ones that will receive the highest amount of attention in the early years, at least until the next child comes into the family. As they grow, they are faced with a couple of unique challenges that the first and last child will not have to deal with.
To start with, they will always be, even if only in their own mind, compared to the firstborn. How soon did they walk and how did that compare to their older sibling? When did they begin to speak compared to the firstborn, or tie their shoes, or read, or spell? In short, everything that they do will be rated with the firstborn having set the standard. Now think about the pressure if the firstborn becomes an over-achiever. How will this impact the psyche of the next born child? In many cases, no matter how reassuring the parents are, deep in the mind of the middle child it will have an impact.
Next, think of what happens when they are dethroned as the baby; now they are in the middle. All of the attention must go to the new addition to the family. The oldest will most likely be put in charge and the youngest needs the most care. At times the middle child may feel as though they are falling between the cracks. Naturally, to get attention, they may tend to act in ways that will result in someone, anyone, noticing them.
A great example of this is my middle child Kasey. Kasey came into this world 5 weeks early and was pretty unhealthy for the first few years of his life. Because of this he received a lot of attention; it was just necessary for his care. Then something happened that would change Kasey’s life forever…Colton. I became pregnant with child number three when Kasey was two and the impact on his life became very noticeable quite quickly. When I was only four and a half months pregnant I began to have complications that lead to me spending the rest of my third pregnancy on bed rest.
Kasey began to feel the change immediately. The first thing that the doctors instructed me: do NOT pick him up! In the mind of this two year old, who was used to being held quite often because of his early needs, it was devastating. Mom could no longer do the things with him that he was so used to; so he acted out. He became loud and sometimes unruly just so mom would pay attention to him. One such time I remember clearly was an incident between him and a plant.
I was resting on the couch in the living room, as I did most days at this point in my pregnancy, and Kasey was playing on the living room on the floor. He was clearly not happy with the lack of attention he was receiving and I could see it in his eyes. Now, I’m sure he had no idea why I wasn’t up and around all of the time, he just knew that I wasn’t. He got up, looked at me and walked over to a 6 foot tall plant by the door, turned and looked right at me again. I knew exactly what he was about to do. No sooner had I gotten the words, “Don’t you dare,” out of my mouth that he did. He reached over to the plant and, while still looking at me, pulled the plant over. He wanted my attention and was willing to do anything to get it, even if it meant getting into trouble. Thus, what you often see with the middle child.
For the reason of not wanting to fall between the cracks, feeling like they are lost between the over-achieving firstborn and the always cute last born, middle children will often be the ones that push the envelope. They also tend to seek out their own community and have many friends outside of the family. Places where they feel special and are not in competition with their siblings.
Here is a list of some of the personality traits you might see in the middle child/children:
- Loyal to their peers
- Has many friends of their own
- Strong negotiator
- Need to be in the center of things
- More likely to embrace change
- Concerned about fairness
- Keep their word
Some traits that may not always be positive:
- Cynical, possibly bitter
- Possibly stubborn
- A bit of a rebel, unafraid of the authority
Keep in mind that these traits are due to the role they play, not necessarily their natural giftedness. I will pull all of the different components together later in this chapter. Before that, though, let’s take a look at the last born child.
Last born, AKA The Baby of the Family
A quote you will often hear from my youngest sister Kelli, the last born of our family, is “I’m the baby. Gotta love me.” This is the highly coveted role in the family for several reasons. They tend to get the most attention because they have the most people around to give them attention. Mom, dad, older brothers and sisters, everyone gets to help out in raising the last child. They don’t need to speak early, like the firstborn; why should they when their older siblings speak for them. They get help to do whatever it is they have to do. If all of the children are told to pick up the toys, who will most likely do the least amount of work? The youngest. The older children are better at it because, well, their older and it doesn’t take long for the youngest to figure that out.
If they start to cry, it is not just mom or dad that comes to the rescue, it is the whole family. They will most likely fall into the ‘entertainer’ role, as well. It is fun to make people laugh, and the more people you have laughing at you the more encouragement you have to continue. This may tend to drive them into playing a not-so-serious type role in their life. Some research has even shown that the last born child is most likely to receive the least amount of formal education.
I myself played the role of the last born child for 11 years. I must admit that a few, if not all, of the characteristics connected to this birth order do apply to me. Somewhere in the archives of my mother’s eight millimeter reel-to-reel film is a clip of me at the young age of 2 or 3 dancing with delight in front of a room full of relatives. When the music stopped I promptly began clapping for myself with pride… definitely the attention seeker. So with my last born child, as well. I have quite a few incriminating videos of him and his friends doing very silly things all in the name of entertaining themselves and others.
It is also interesting to note that, of all of the birth orders, the youngest is the least likely to adapt away from their natural gifts. They are the ones that tend to have the least amount of performance pressure on them and, therefore, the least amount of pressure to adapt away from who they are naturally due to their birth order. Therefore, they may have more self-confidence and tend to be outgoing. Perfectionism is not at the top of their list but adventure is.
Here is a list of some of the personality traits that you might see in the last born child/children:
- Attention Seeker
- Risk taker
- Good sense of humor
- Most adventurous of birth orders
Some traits that may not always be positive:
- Financially irresponsible
Once again, I must emphasize that these traits are due to the role they play not necessarily their natural giftedness. This brings me to the next section in this unit: cultural and external expectations.
 “Associations Between Birth Order and Personality Traits: Evidence from Self-Reports and Observer Ratings” Tyrone Jefferson, Jr., Jeffery H. Herbst, and Robert R. McCrae. Chronological Research Center, National Institute of Aging, National Institutes of Health.
 “The Birth Order Book” Dr. Kevin Leman, MJF Books, New York
 “The Birth Order Book,” Dr. Kevin Leman, MJF Books, New York
 Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives –Frank J Sulloway, 1996, pp. 22, 23
 Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging, Sulloway, September 8, 1997
 PLEASE NOTE: This does not mean that last borns do not adapt or suppress their natural BPC. A last born may be at high risk of adaption for a different factor.