Toby Kahn
August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

“I’m nobody’s kid sister, “Lee Radziwill once snapped when questioned about the willowy shadow cast over her by older sister Jackie Onassis. Such sibling rivalry is commonplace in most families. Indeed, where children fall in the pecking order of the family influences who they become, argue Manhattan psychotherapists Bradford Wilson and George Edington in their new book, First Child, Second Child…(McGraw-Hill, $11.95). Edington, 63, who holds master’s degrees in English and psychology, and Wilson, 55, a Ph.D. in psychology, spent 23 years compiling their research. They interviewed and observed between 400 and 800 people, who ranged from newborns to senior citizens, age 75. Wilson, a bachelor, was the youngest of three boys, a child “determined to compete. “He discusses the four major birth orders (oldest, middle, youngest and only) with Toby Kahn of PEOPLE.

Why is birth order significant?

Children grow up in quite different environments depending on whether they are the oldest, youngest or in the middle, because of, among other things, their mother and father’s changing economic status and increasing experience as parents. For example, firstborns are apt to have parents who love each other, while lastborns may not be as lucky. Also, power struggles and jealousies between siblings often are dictated by their positioning.

Are firstborns truly the most likely to succeed?

By traditional definitions of success in corporate, professional and academic fields, oldest children seem to lead the pack. They see themselves as guardians of tradition and generally achieve within the Establishment. Of the 29 astronauts who went to the moon, 22 were firstborns. So were many U.S. Presidents.

What factors mold the eldest child?

Parents are new and anxious, so they watch their firstborn with great enthusiasm. Every time the child fulfills their hopes or expectations, he or she gets reinforcement, which encourages the child to keep striving for more praise. The first arrivals are included in adult activities at an earlier age than succeeding children. They’re taken to concerts, movies, museums, restaurants. They’re lovingly instructed. They develop a great sense of responsibility very early, since pressure is put on them to set a good example for their younger siblings.

What price do the eldest pay?

Somewhere along the line their right to be children can get lost in the shuffle. They won’t allow themselves to be clumsy, lazy, to disobey. They are under duress, often benign, to be “the perfect child,” and this becomes their status. They are the least comfortable with children their own age, unlikely to be joiners, and most likely to suffer school phobia.

How does the oldest child cope?

Most boys work out realistic expectations for themselves. A few crack under the pressure and relinquish the leadership role to the next oldest brother. Composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, for example, ended up a dissipated wanderer, while Carl Philipp Emanuel, the next brother in line, became the most esteemed composer among Bach’s 20 children.

Do middle children really have it the roughest?

There is a lot of truth to that. They can feel neglected and embark on an endless search for a sense of belonging. Their great strength is that they often say “To heck with the family” and go play with the kids around the corner, rapidly developing their social skills. There is no doubt that middle children are apt to be the most popular with peers. They are sticklers for rules as children; in adulthood they make effective lawyers and union representatives.

Are youngest children spoiled?

Traditionally the youngest are thought to be indulged. And it is true that they are often permitted more freedom than the older siblings were at the same age. The flip side is that they grow up feeling “I’ll never catch up” and “I’m always last.” While big sisters and brothers are often kind and supportive, the phrase “Here, I’ll do it for you” is a heavy one. It’s really a vote of no confidence and undermines the younger child’s capacity to trust his or her own abilities to learn. So sometimes “the baby in the family” overcompensates and takes on enormous work loads to win appreciation.

How do the youngest hold their own?

Through humor. They have the best gift for satire and parody, for twisting the lion’s tail. They know how to get attention through shenanigans and showing off.

They sound like brats. Isn’t that supposedly the role of the only child?

Actually, the drawback for only children is that they grow up in a goldfish bowl. So much attention is centered on them, not just by parents, but by relatives and friends. Single children have a special disadvantage in that they have no opportunity within the family to learn how to compete or how to share.

What do they have going for them?

Well, they learn how to stake out private space; they can be comfortably alone with themselves. This gives them an independence and self-sufficiency siblings don’t develop, although an oldest child may have this kind of ability if no brothers or sisters happen along for four years or more.

How do only children do romantically?

They have an awful time learning how to fight without feeling it’s the end of the relationship. They get too deeply hurt and have exaggerated feelings of having harmed the other person irreparably. Kids who grow up with brothers and sisters know you may want to kill each other one day and be friends the next. So the romances of only children often break up at the first fight or two. No wonder they often remain single.

How does spacing of children affect their relations to each other?

When a brother or sister is within four years in age, the two usually get along quite well. Four to six years’ difference spells the real trouble in a two-sibling combination. The oldest child has been an only child for all those years and suddenly a baby comes along. If they are 10 years apart, then they live in different worlds. The youngest will view the older as a parent and feel more like an only child.

Which children tend to be most artistic?

Probably the youngest. They can feel terribly misunderstood and may develop a secret language that says, “I know what I am saying and here it is.” By putting something on paper in a tangible form, nobody can tell you to shut up or refuse to listen. Other people have got to look at it.

Who tend to be most secretive?

Generally, middle children. They often feel overlooked by the world; they may respond with quiet resentment, as if to say, “You never showed interest in where I was coming from—so don’t expect me to confide in you now.” They keep their own counsel, and often suffer their pains in silence. Partly this stems from having witnessed the histrionics of younger siblings and the seemingly ominous risk taking of older ones. Largely it has to do with the middle child’s need to run with the pack and never do anything that might make him or her an outsider.

Do people envy twins?

Yes. People tend to see twins as the embodiment of their own yearning for an ideal soulmate. They wonder, “Gee, what’s it like to have another self?” There is an enormous push for twins to merge—even if they are fraternal and don’t look much alike. Fraternals often resent this and are more apt not to get along. A lot of identical twins can be threatened by a sense of isolation, which the rest of us find part of life. After all, being in the womb with company must be quite a different formative experience.

What happens in large families?

The children divide into very complex alliances. For example, if there is a bunch of girls with three younger boys, you get sisters vs. brothers. It is not uncommon for at least one child to get lost in the crowd and grow up with no attention paid to his or her special needs. But a positive result is that kids are more comfortable in groups than children from smaller families.

Do you consider yourself typical of your birth order, youngest of three boys?

Well, youngest boys are often stereotyped as irresponsible, and they either fulfill the prophecy or take on an attitude of “Oh yeah? I’ll show you!” I was the latter type. I became a portrait artist at age 16, in part just to make a personal statement nobody could ignore. My father, an authority on Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, scoffed when two years later I announced I was going to try out for a leading role in The Yeomen of the Guard. But I worked on my singing and got the part. He was thrilled—but also shocked. I told him, “If you hadn’t said I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t even have tried out.”

Are we doomed then to follow or rebel against birth-order stereotypes?

There is more to our personalities than the sequence in which we are born. There is no ideal family constellation, nor is there an ominous one. If people understand that, they can work their way through the hazards and reap the joys to be had in being with each other. There is life after birth order.

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