About the Author: This article has been written for the Muslim Mums magazine publication that was in circulation in 2011. The author for this piece is Shaheen Merali of Hand in Hand Parenting with Shaheen.
We have a tendency of generalising, and when it comes to our children it is no different – we expect older children to be more responsible, and call our little ones ‘mastikhors’ lovingly. There may be a scientific background to this however, with research showing how birth order affects our personalities, job choices and even marriage choices! Therefore being aware of this may enable us to adjust our parenting methods and allow us to give all our children equal chances in life.
“Birth order, even on a rudimentary level, gives you a jump start on understanding each other,” says Cliff Isaacson, an Iowa based psychotherapist and author of five books on birth order. “Each place in the birth order has a unique thinking pattern, how he or she processes information.”
This birth order information below explains how personality traits and everyday lives are affected by being the firstborn, middle-born, or last-born child.
Personality Traits of Firstborn Children1:
● Smarter. Firstborn children appear to be smarter than youngest and middle children. Firstborns’ IQ points are on average 3 points higher than their younger siblings; in fact, IQs tend to drop as more children are born in the family. However, Aaron Wichman of Ohio State University found that it’s not pure birth order that affects intelligence, it’s family size (from a research study called “Older Children Not Smarter Than Younger Sibs, Study Finds”).
Big families can’t offer the same advantages to all the kids that small families can; firstborn children mentor their younger siblings and thus learn more, and the bigger the family, the less time that can be spent with each subsequent child. Therefore it is genetics and the family environment that affects IQ more than birth order.
● Better educated. Firstborn children are more likely to go to college or university than youngest or middle children. If parents can afford to send one child to school, it’s more likely to be the firstborn. Families invest more in firstborn children than middle or youngest children.
● More money. Firstborn children may earn more money and be more likely to hold a high-paying, white collar job. Firstborns are more likely to be surgeons, chairs in boardrooms, and hold MBAs.
● Favourites. Firstborn children are more likely to enjoy resources (food, parental time, emotional nourishment, attention) than youngest children. It becomes a cycle: the more firstborns are nurtured, the stronger they become – prompting parents to invest even more time, money, and attention.
Personality Traits of Middle Children:
● More mysterious. Middle born children are more difficult to define because their identity growing up changes (from last born to middle child). This affects their personality and environment in unpredictable ways.
● Peacekeepers. Middle born children may be more likely to keep peace in the family, to restore connections and relationships.
● Less decisive. Middle children may take longer to choose a career than firstborn or later-borns. They may deliberately make opposite choices than firstborns; if the firstborn is a doctor, the middle child may choose to be a firefighter or policeman.
● Less connected. Middle children may not be as attached to the family as firstborns or later borns.
Personality Traits of Last Born or Youngest Children:
● More adventurous. Last born or youngest children are more likely to be “loose cannons”, according to an article in Time magazine (“The Power of Birth Order”, Oct 29, 2007). Youngest children are more likely to be an artist, entrepreneur or adventurer – and more likely to participate in physically risky sports.
● Funnier. Last born children are more likely to be comedians or satirists. They’ll be outrageous or funny as a power strategy in the family.
● More agreeable. Younger children tend to get along in the world better – a trait known as “agreeableness” in the Big Five Personality Traits. Compared to firstborn children, last borns are less likely to provoke people.
Factors Affecting These Traits2
According to psychologist Dr.Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book, critical parents, gender, health and age gaps in particular, can also alter the personalities of children, as they have a big effect on the way youngsters learn to function within the family and the outside world.
The Critical-eyed Parent
Dr. Leman says a parent who relentlessly criticises a child, especially the eldest, can dramatically alter the youngster’s path to becoming a reliable, conscientious leader.
“If the firstborn grows up with a critical eyed parent, guess what? The firstborn doesn’t fill out the paradigm or the model of what a firstborn should be like. When you see that, a couple things happen: if there’s a child two or three years behind them, for example, that second born will leap frog over the firstborn to, of course, the firstborn’s detriment. You’ll see what we call a role reversal.” Dr. Leman says the firstborn will often shun responsibility. “The firstborn is messy. The firstborn starts a lot of projects and doesn’t finish them. They’re procrastinators par excellence. The critical-eyed parent is one that should be addressed and dealt with in a serious manner because it can have a very detrimental effect on the firstborn child.” Thus the critical-eyed parent is a “huge variable” that he sees a lot in families.
Gender, Health & Big Age Gaps
Gender and health issues also affect birth order traits. “Sex is one of the variables that effect birth order.” According to Dr. Leman, there can be two or more firstborn personalities within a family. For example, an eldest daughter will assume a leadership role. If she’s followed by the birth of a male sibling, the boy will often also exhibit the traits of a firstborn child. Likewise, if the firstborn is physically or emotionally challenged, the number two child is going to function as a firstborn.
If parents wait long enough to have their last child, the baby of the family could also have a firstborn or even an only child personality. “If there’s a large gap – a gap of five years – between the births of especially same sex children, you can draw a line psychologically and start a new family. In many families, you’ll find more than one firstborn personality in that given birth order,” says Dr. Leman.
As we can see, while birth order does have a very real effect on your life and personality traits, these birth personality characteristics and lifestyle traits are not set in stone; firstly, they are one of many factors that affect our children, others also being very important, such as genetics.
Secondly, birth order traits can be affected by things like family size, the environment, age-gaps between children and, quite importantly, parenting styles. Some of the above factors are linked and can be adjusted by us, for example, parents spend more time with firstborns, and this then affects how ‘smart’ they are, how far they go in their education, and how much they earn. Therefore, in order to give your later children the same IQ boost and other perks, try to spend more time with them too and help them along the way.
We can also see evidence to suggest this in our ahadith, where the Prophet has invoked us to be just to our children when giving them gifts, or even kissing them. The following hadith highlights this quite clearly: al-Ayal, narrating from al-Hasan (a) who said: “the Messenger of Allah(s) was once speaking with his companions when a child entered and went to a corner of the mosque to his father. The father patted his son’s head and made him sit on his right knee. After a while, his daughter entered and went towards him, and he patted her on her head and made her sit on the ground.”
The Prophet of Allah (s) said: “Why didn’t you seat her on your other knee?” Then the man seated her on his other knee, and the Prophet of Allah (s) said: “Now you have done justice.” (al-’lyal V1 Pg 173)
Analysing our parenting styles too, is quite essential to ensure that we are not stunting our children, but allowing them to grow to their potential. Again, Islam provides guidelines for us here too, and tells us not to ridicule the actions of our children, nor order or forbid them too much, as this emboldens them and leads to rebellious behaviour in the future.
The Messenger of Allah (s) once said: “May Allah bless him who helps his child in doing good”. He was asked: “How can he help him in doing good?” He (s) answered: “That he accepts the little that he can do, he forgives whatever he cannot do, he does not overburden him and does not demand too much from him, for there is nothing between him and entering a dimension of disbelief other than [due to the behaviour of his parents] he disobey his parents or cut ties with his kin.” (Al-Kafi, V6, page 50).
For those characteristics that come naturally from being born in a certain order and whose variables we cannot control, such as age gaps and the gender of the children, it is important that we embrace these differences in our children and not expect them to be equal and the same, as each will have their own talents and will bring something special to the family mix. After all, which family doesn’t need a comedian?!