Birth Order and How Family Stories Evolve

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards…” In figuring out how our stories evolved, we do, indeed, look backwards. (See neuropsychologist Dr. Diane Engelman’s recent post, Are We Our Stories?)

Studies on whether birth order can affect our personality have gone on for decades. Some say yes, others no. A 2015 article (Beck) says no effect, and one from 2009 (Hartshorne), the opposite. Without getting into that debate, we can look at how family stories grow up around siblings. And if birth order helps clarify what those stories have been, it seems a reasonable place to start.

I was the firstborn of three siblings. One brother was 3½ years younger than I, and our youngest brother died shortly after birth. My “middle child” brother actually birth order, family storiesgrew up as the youngest, though he did show more traits of the middle child.

  • I was conscientious, thorough, and wanted to achieve as high as I could – all those dreaded, boring traits that are used to describe firstborns. But I was also creative and adventuresome, almost in compensation for my reliability.
  • My brother’s traits were harder to define. In a constantly traveling military family, he and I were the only consistent friends in our lives. And so he accepted my definitions of the world to a great extent. But middle children can also be subtle rebels – and so he was.

He didn’t draw attention to it, but quietly did things his own way. My bedroom was always fairly neat. His, on the other hand, was an informal science experiment, with half-eaten cans of mandarin oranges shoved under his bed and forgotten.

The larger difference came in school: I made good grades – my learning style meshed with the regimented school plan for teaching and learning. I quickly understood that there were “right” and “wrong” ways to meet requirements. On the other hand, my brother, at six, was asked by his teacher why he was staring out the window instead of tending to his class work. He said quietly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, “I’m watching the birds.” Gatto (2005) writes of the ways in which over-rigidity in schooling can hinder actual learning. Such was the case for my brother, the rebel dreamer.

The family stories were that I was “the good student” and he “just didn’t try hard enough.” But in looking backward, we can also piece together a likely reading disorder in my brother – not recognized in those days – and a probable inattentive type of ADHD. As an adult, he overcame the reading challenges and found his niche in the tech world, where a hands-on style worked well.

By talking about our childhood experiences, we changed those family stories. We now see that we each did things uniquely well. He knows that when doing something worthwhile to him, he focuses and accomplishes as much as any “good student.” Although, to this day, I’m not sure he considers himself “smart,” which he certainly is. More work to do!

Think about your own personal narratives. Consider how they evolved and maybe write down at least some key points (See How to Track Thoughts as They Convert to Story). As you do this, you might examine how birth order, family expectations, learning disorders, and yes, societal expectations, played into those stories.

Beck, Julie (October 2015) The Atlantic
Gatto, John Taylor (2005) Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
Hartshorne, Joshua K. (January 2009) Scientific American

Note: In this post, the author, JB Allyn, is not directly or indirectly giving psychological or medical advice. Nor is she prescribing the use of any technique to treat medical, physical, or emotional problems. The author intends only to offer information of a general nature that may assist you in seeking personal growth. If you choose to use any of the information the author presents, she assumes no responsibility for your choices or actions.

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