Birth Order: the Classic View

In an earlier post I wrote about the middle child in a family and their tendencies in life. Today I will speak quickly about the “classic” view of birth order as seen by Dr. Alfred Adler.

Before we proceed, some caution is warranted. Firstly, the psychological situation of each child in the family is different and may not necessarily follow these “rules.” Secondly, it is the child’s own opinion of himself and his situation which determines his choice of attitude. Third, if more than 3 years separate children in terms of birth dates, then sub-groups of birth order characteristics may form. When there are only two siblings, separated by more than 3 years, the second child may actually get treated as, and will form personality traits as if she was, the first-born. Fourthly, it is not unusual to see a second, third, or fourth born child seize another child’s birth order. Fifth, Adler found that “organ inferiority, parental attitudes in general, social and economic position, and gender roles,” could upend the birth order characteristics he’d found. Organ inferiority is not what you might think; instead, it has to do with situations where the first-born arrived with significant physical developmental challenges.

Oddly enough, Adler’s findings were predicated on what were, for his time, the traditional ways in which families were run: autocratic and paternal, and highly competitive. If a family is run on far less autocratic basis (not to include meritocratic) and if competition were minimized between siblings and their parents, then the birth order differences were also minimized.

Okay, so here are the traditional impacts of the order in which you were born, as seen by Alfred Adler:

Birth Order Position The Family Situation and Parental Reactions The Child’s Characteristics (all things being equal)
The ONLY Child Here the general tendency, subconsciously, is for the parents to look upon the birth as a miracle. And because there is no competition, ever, from another sibling, the only child receives 200% of available attention at any given time (100% from each parent). Not surprisingly, the ONLY child likes being the center of attention because that is ALL they have EVER known. They often have difficultly sharing with siblings and peers. They end up preferring the company of adults older than themselves, and often develop adult-level language skills far sooner than their peer group.
FIRST Born: The OLDEST Child Initially, the FIRST born is treated more or less the same as an ONLY child. If less than 3 years separate the first-born from the next in line, then the first child will not have enough time to enjoy the fruits of 200% attention (see above). And since attention is shifted to the next born, the first child is, in effect, dethroned and must learn how to share.  Consequently, parental expectations are also high: They expect the first-born to lead the way for the next, and following, children. Expectations for the first-born are very high given the fact that all of the parents’ attention was spent on him or her. The first-born is loaded down with the family flag, as it were. He or she is expected to follow an example.


If more than three years separate the first-born from the next child (or children), then the first-born can develop in a manner consistent with an ONLY child.

This child may become quite authoritarian in approach and strict in their own parenting later on. Sadly, they can come to feel that power is their right in life. But they can also be very helpful if encouraged.


Not unusual is the tendency of the first-born to turn toward the father when the second child arrives, which makes sense when we consider how the mother becomes consumed with the infant and has correspondingly less time for the first-born.

The SECOND Child Put very simply, the SECOND child will forever have a “pacemaker” in life – someone ahead of them who sets the pace. In life, it will forever seem as if someone is always ahead. The family, particularly the mother, will focus on the SECOND child for a time, which will have development impact upon the first-born. The father will often emerge was the best friend to the first born and, in time, less so for the second born. Second children are often more competitive, and may even have an unspoken urge to overtake the first born. They are often classed as rebels, so to speak and will try to outdo their peers.

Competition, however, can devolve into sibling rivalry of the worst sort. The parents will need to ameliorate such tendencies at every turn possible.

The MIDDLE Child The family is getting better now at having and rearing children. Consequently, the middle child will reap the benefits of the parents’ even-tempered approach to infancy and the toddler stage. But the middle child, as was the case above, can be dethroned by the next sibling to come along. Nevertheless, middle children can often feel “sandwiched” and squeezed out of any position of privilege or significance. Often, as in Home Alone, the middle child can feel forgotten or have trouble understanding their place.  Happily, the middle child can also develop solid capacities for patience and a take it or leave it attitude.
The YOUNGEST Child Interestingly, by this time in the family’s history, the older siblings are called upon to help parent the youngest. Hence, the youngest child often has “many mothers and fathers” who try to educate him. By virtue of the birth order, the youngest child is never dethroned. Here we can see the Napoleon Complex at work, in the sense that the youngest is forever trying to be bigger than the other siblings. She may have huge plans that never seem to work out. Is accommodated at every turn and can often become “spoiled.” Will forever be the baby of the family.
TWIN This is a tough area and is frequently studied. Birth order can be confounded by family dynamics (mom always loved you best, etc.). But we have found that one of the two twins is usually the stronger or more active and consequently, the parents may see her as the “older” child. Twins can have identity problems their entire lives. The stronger, more active one may become a leader, indeed, the leader of the twin-set, which can have derivative issues later on in life when the stronger twin passes before the other.
The “Ghost Child” This involves the death of a child, who will forever be the “elephant” in the room. If the first child dies, then the next sibling produced will forever have a “ghost” in front of him. The mother is typically “over-protective” of the next child born. The child born after the ghost child has passed will often sub-consciously exploit the mother’s over-concern for his wellbeing, or he may rebel and protest the implied comparison to the child who has passed.
The ADOPTED Child Not surprisingly, and when the adopted child is the only child, the parents may be so thankful to have a child that they spoil him. They may try to compensate for the loss of his biologic roots. Depending upon circumstances, and whether the adopted child is alone or one of several siblings, the adopted child may become very spoiled and therefore demanding in life. Eventually, he may resent or idealize his biological parents.
Only BOY among GIRLS The family dynamic is simple: the boy, especially when the father is not present, is forever around women. He may be babied and parented by the girls. He may be held to a different standard by the parents. Consequently, the only boy among a family of female siblings may forever try to prove himself as the man in the family. Alternatively, he may develop effeminate traits (not that there is anything wrong with that).
Only GIRL among BOYS The girl is forever around boys, especially when the mother is not present. All things being equal, the dynamic in the family will be for the boys to protect the girl. Consequently, the only girl in a group of boys can either become very feminine, or enjoy the benefits of being a tomboy and try to outdo the brothers. The only girl is often seen trying to forever please the father.


This is a broad simplification of what Adler had to say about birth order, but it is a good guide.  I am the oldest in a family of four (two boys) and I am separated from my brother by almost five years. Can you think of the traits I have demonstrated which link me more to the ONLY child?

Have fun.


About Dr Joseph Russo

Born and raised in Woodland Hills, California; now residing in Laramie, Wyoming (or "Laradise" as we call it, for good reason), with my wife Cindy, our little schnauzer, Macy Mae, and a cat named Markie. I hold a BBA from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Nevada at Reno. My first career was in business, for some 25+ years. In 2007, I shifted gears and entered the helping professions as a mental health counselor. I earned an MA in Educational Psychology and a Doctorate (PhD) in Counselor Education and Supervision. In my spare time I enjoy mentoring young and not-so-young business and non-profit executives as they go about growing their businesses and presence. I also teach part-time at the University of Wyoming, in both the Colleges of Education and Business.
This entry was posted in General Musings. Bookmark the permalink.