2018-06-06 / Columns

A lifetime of experience confirms the importance of birth order


“Oh, you must be a firstborn,” I recently said to an almost perfect stranger, but an obviously responsible young woman in whom I also sensed an ability—and need—to lead.

She was, indeed, the oldest of three.

“Are you a middle?” I asked a young man who was with us in a recent tour group. What prompted the question was this guy’s obvious penchant for being a pleaser. And pleasers, it turns out, are often middle children craving positive attention.

By the way, I goofed. He wasn’t a middle—just a last-born pleaser. So much for my impeccable score as a birth order maven.

But it still amazes me how much we learn about one another once we establish that often-heavily decisive factor in a life: Birth order.

As far as I’m concerned, you can forget Marx and his notions of the class struggle and you can also discard Freud’s theories about the Oedipal complex.

If you really want to solve the profound mysteries of the universe and the human psyche, turn to birth order.

I firmly believe that your destiny, at least in large part, boils down to where you happened to place in the family sweepstakes.

As a last-born, I’ve always known it: Firsts are different.

Just ask my older sister Ruthie, the empowered, entitled daughter. As much as I adore her, I also recognize that she’s also a classic first.

“Stop being bossy,” I admonish her, even in our senior years. And she tries—but more often than not, fails.

I have plenty of ammunition on my side. There are literally hundreds of studies on the impact of birth order, and several years ago, the scholars at Harvard University issued one that weighed in at 800 pages.

I’m a sucker for those little nuggets that these studies invariably spawn. Here are a couple:

• Did you know that firstborns tend to support the status quo? Yet they often emerge as leaders, which seems like a sociological oxymoron to me, but there it is.

• Firsts are also over-represented among the ranks of the great and near-great: Nobel laureates, Supreme Court justices, political leaders.

• And an unexplained item: A strikingly high percentage of stripteasers are firstborns. I’ll leave that one alone.

We who did not come first are officially known as “Later-borns.” Our characteristics include being cooperative, extroverted, empathizing, open-minded and popular.

But chances are that we won’t end up the captain of industry or of the team. We’re too busy being nice.

Many would say this is all absolute nonsense, the worst of pop psychology. And every sister and brother in the land probably has an opinion about whether the poor, displaced firstborn needs to punish the “later-borns,” or whether we Johnny/Jane-come-latelys spend our lives trying to wreak revenge on the first child who got unused parents and not a single hand-me-down snowsuit or jacket or toy.

This I can tell you: Jill, our classic firstborn, still “handles” whatever comes down the pike with her sisters. To this day, she rules.

Middle daughter Amy turns outward and claims more friends than any of the rest of us. The world loves her, and she loves it back.

Nancy, the perennial “baby” of the family in her early 50s, enjoys the special rights that go with a lifetime of being protected and nurtured.

And now I’m watching history repeat itself with the next generation.

I can report that Sam and Hannah, the firstborns in their respective families, rule the roost with younger siblings. Those younger siblings, more outgoing, less in need of being in charge, also rebel on occasion.

On a recent visit with our noisy brood, I overheard Carly, the sweet, out-to-please younger sister, say in exasperation to her imperious older sister Emily, “You’re not the boss of me.”

And Emily looked her sister squarely in the eye and offered the one retort Carly couldn’t dispute.

“But I’ll ALWAYS be older than you,” said Emily.

Spoken like a true firstborn… 


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