Photo by Everette Collection
If you have more than one child, you’re probably occasionally guilty of saying, “He’s the baby of the family” or “Poor middle child.” But while these stereotypical terms may seem innocent, even affectionate, they influence how parents treat their children and may be harmful to their self-esteem.
It can be tough to resist relying on these adages, in part because they’ve been passed down through generations: Firstborns are overachievers, middle children are starved for attention, and younger ones are spoiled. However, such thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for how children behave, causing them to internalize stereotypes and limit their potential.
“Kids notice inequalities in the family,” Catherine Salmon, PhD, associate professor of psychology at University of Redlands in Redlands, California, and author of The Secret Power of Middle Children, tells Yahoo Parenting. “You have a firstborn who has had this period alone with the parents, where he or she has been the sole focus of attention and investment. When the next child comes along, things change and, often, the older child takes on an authoritarian role, becoming almost a pseudo-parent to younger siblings.”
Yet there is some truth to generalities surrounding birth order, according to Toni Falbo, PhD, professor of educational psychology at University of Texas at Austin. “When you look at large-scale studies of hundreds of thousands of cases, you can get an image of intelligence being related to the number of siblings you have and your birth order,” Falbo tells Yahoo Parenting. “While there are, of course, a huge number of variations, one is that, in general, firstborns are a little brighter than laterborns.”
It’s these norms which make it hard for parents to avoid living out those stereotypes. “With a firstborn, that’s your first kid,” Falbo says. “You’re learning how to parent and tend to photograph every age and stage. You may also put more pressure on your first-born. With laterborns, parents are way less concerned over every little tooth or step.”
The search for attention is often the most challenging for middle and younger kids. “Firstborns usually get more attention from their parents, but for middle and youngest kids that’s not an option,” Salmon says. “They’ve always had to share it.”
The middle child is often left alone, which, contrary to stereotype, can lead him or her to do great things, says Salmon, who adds that Bill Gates and Michael Dell were all middle children. “Middle children end up being outside-the-box thinkers and we really need people like this, both within the family and in our society.”
And, while the youngest child often has an easier time growing up with more experienced parents, this can be problematic, too. “The last born may either be expected to follow in the footsteps of an older sibling or told they can’t deviate from that path,” Falbo says. “On the other hand, younger siblings may find that their parents aren’t as strict or don’t have as high expectations for them.”
In the end, birth order can be as defining a factor in the family as you make it. “That’s an important lesson for all parents,” Salmon says. “You want to encourage your kids to defy stereotypes and let them develop into the person they’re going to be, no matter their arrival in the family.”