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The Unexplained Differences in Sibing Personalities: Is Birth Order the Answer?

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While it is clear and widely accepted that physical characteristics are hereditary, the genetic waters get a bit murkier when it comes to an individual's behavior, intelligence, and personality. Debate has always surrounded the question of how much influence birth order has in defining our individual personalities. Ultimately, the argument of nature vs. nurture has never really been won. Therefore, the question remains to be answered. How can children raised in the same home, under the exact same circumstances, often turn out dramatically different?

It is my belief that much more than simply birth order, that personalities are formed by a combination of environmental effects, bearing in mind that the dynamics within a home strongly contribute to these effects. It is not simply the birth order itself that determines who we will be as individuals, but rather it is the result of the behavior that parents exhibit towards each child. As well, as the roles the children assume amongst themselves and how they perceive their parents' attention are factors.

Alfred Adler was the first psychologist to theorize about the effects of birth order on personality development. Adler believed that humans have a strong need to be accepted and valued, and that the family is the first social group in which we strive for this sense of belonging. He viewed parents' responses to their children as being affected by the order of each child's birth into the family. Consequently, he used birth order "as a basis for predicting characteristic behavior of individuals" who fell into the categories of "eldest, middle, youngest, or only child" (Greenberg, Guerino, Lashen, Mayer, and Piskowski, 1963).

Adler's model of typical traits exhibited by birth positions is widely accepted as an example of tendencies and general characteristics that may often apply. In his model, firstborns are characterized as being perfectionists, reliable, well organized, critical, scholarly, achievers and competitive. Middle children have characteristics that include being the mediators in the family, and being loyal, shy or quiet and easygoing. Last-borns are charmers. They are affectionate, uncomplicated and sometimes manipulating. They can also be spoiled, rebellious and temperamental. Only children often exhibit the same traits as firstborns. They are well organized, critical, serious, cautious and reliable. They can also take on traits of lastborns, sometimes being spoiled and self- centered (Greenberg, Guerino, Lashen, Mayer, and Piskowski, 1963).

The road to the manifestation of these traits is a logical one. Firstborn children do not have to work hard for their parents' approval. Every milestone they accomplish is photographed, locks of hair are kept, and achievements are documented. Firstborn children are very important to the ego of the parents and are encouraged to achieve at very high levels to reflect well on the parents. Firstborn and only children learn that all it takes to gain parental approval is to follow their parents' wishes. It is theorized that eldest children maintain this approach throughout their lives, gaining status by working hard (Perlmutter, 2004).

Middle children have less parental focus. If you ask a middle-child, many would tell you that they do not have a baby book documenting their achievements. They require creativity to capture their parents' attention. So, they observe and retain data that will gain them desired attention from their parents. They learn that it is advantageous to adapt. They often seek outside peer groups for feelings of belonging (Greenberg, Guerino, Lashen, Mayer, and Piskowski, 1963).

Youngest children are attention seekers. They can afford to be comical and entertaining, because their parents' do not have such high expectations set. This comes from having raised other children who might have already achieved those expectations. The downside of this is that youngest children can adopt those lower expectations for themselves. They are often less responsible than their siblings (Greenberg, Guerino, Lashen, Mayer, and Piskowski, 1963).

I am the oldest of three children. The traits illustrated in Adler's model describe me accurately. They also describe my middle and youngest sisters. While of course I realize that we are not large enough of a specimen group to make any sort of scientific judgment, I can't ignore the similarities.

At the present time, it is necessary to draw your own conclusions about different views and theories. Unfortunately, although there have been over 141 studies conducted since 1976, the results have been inconclusive (Stewart and Campbell, 1998). Each study has a conclusive finding, although contradictory. For instance, one study of over 300,000 subjects measured the perceived or psychological birth order of young adults and revealed that 45 percent of men and 52 percent of women have a distinct sibling role in their families and that psychological and actual birth order is in agreement for 19 percent of people (Stewart, Stewart and Campbell, 2001). Yet, another study among this same number revealed few reliable differences in personality variables due to birth order (Phillips and Phillips, 1994).

One of the most famous modern skeptics of the birth order theory is Judith Rich Harris, author of "No

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