Birth Order Theory

Play episode
three men sitting on posts
Photo by Joel Bengs

Rena Dam and Liz Waid look at birth order theory. How does a child’s place in the family affect his character? Why are children from the same family often so different from one another?

Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Rena Dam.

Voice 2 

And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Follow along on YouTube
Voice 1

Imagine a family with three children. Maria is the oldest, David is the second child and Tom is the youngest. One day, their father told them some bad news – he lost his job. Maria was worried. She told her father that she would work to make money for the family. David put his arms around his father and told him that everything would be fine. Tom was sad – his father had promised him new shoes for football. How would he get them now?

Voice 2 

Why did Maria, David and Tom all react differently to their father’s news? Why are children from the same family often so different from one another?  Dr. Alfred Adler had a theory about this. He worked as a doctor in Austria one hundred years ago. He was very interested in the qualities of a person’s character or personality. Dr. Adler thought that the order that children were born into their families affected their personalities. Today’s Spotlight is on Adler’s birth order theory.

four kids holding hands
Photo by Ben Wicks
Voice 1 

There are four possible birth order positions within a family. A child may be the oldest, the youngest or the middle child. Other families have only one child with no brothers or sisters. Birth order theory says that our birth order influences what kind of person we each become.

Voice 2 

Frank Sulloway is a writer and family expert at the University of Calfornia, Berkeley. He believes that birth order affects personality and behavior. He talked to TIME magazine about it. He said that people develop this way for reasons of survival. If a family has more than one child, the children must compete for the parents’ time and resources – resources like food. Frank Sulloway says that people may not recognize that they are working for survival. But it is part of our natural desires. Sulloway says:

Voice 3            

Siblings are much smarter than scientists. They are always trying to define their place in the family. They try to get the most resources out of their parents.”

Voice 1 

Children in each birth position have a different way to gain an advantage in the family. Here are some of the main characters of personality by birth order:

Voice 2 

The first born or oldest child often gets more time with her parents. Think about our story from the beginning of this program. When Maria was born, she had no other siblings to compete for food or time. A first born child, like Maria, often wants to please her parents. She often takes control and responsibility in social situations. She may try to be perfect and do everything correctly. Jeffrey Kluger is a writer. He wrote a book about brothers and sisters. He described the character of an oldest child to the news station NPR:

Voice 4  

“It is often true that oldest children will be the most successful. They will be the ones who earn the most. They will be the ones who are most loyal to the family, most driven to achieve in traditional ways. They will also be the tallest, even if it is only by a few centimeters. They often have higher tested intelligence than the second-born.”

Voice 1 

The last born or youngest child, like Tom, is used to other people providing for him. He may be more concerned about himself than about other people. But Tom is also very friendly. He likes to make other people laugh with jokes and funny behavior. As the youngest, this is often the best way for him to get other people to notice him.

Voice 2 

David is an example of a middle child. He can sometimes feel left out. He does not get the advantages of being the oldest or the youngest. The middle child often develops skills in the arts, such as music or painting. Some middle children become competitive and even rebel against their parents. But many of them, like David, make peace in the family. As a middle child David has learned to work well with other people.

Voice 1 

The last birth order position is the only child. With no brothers or sisters she often gets whatever she wants! She does not have any competition for her parents’ time or resources. The only child often uses language very well because she spends so much time with adults. She can also feel a lot of pressure as the only child. This can make her competitive and hard-working.

three children sitting in the grass
Photo by Charlein Gracia
Voice 2 

Do these personalities fit you and your family? Some people find that birth order theory describes them very well. Other people say the theory cannot be tested and does not work. There are many other variables or different situations that may change the effects of birth order on personality.

Voice 1 

These variables include the sex and age of each child and the number of brothers and sisters. Culture and education also make a difference. So does the amount of money that the family has. The experiences of the family can also change how birth order affects personality. For example, some children are adopted, not born into, their family. Families also change as a result of sickness, death or divorce of the parents.

Voice 2 

Some children may also need different treatment because of disabilities or medical needs – and this can affect the other children in the family. Dianna Anderson, a producer for Spotlight, gives an example. She has two older brothers, and one is disabled. Dianna says,

Voice 5 

“Birth order is very different in my family. Because my oldest brother is disabled, my middle brother is much more like a first child. I am in between a middle child and a youngest child. My middle brother is very smart and is very serious about his work. I work very hard too but I also love to make people laugh. Having a disabled first child changed how our parents treated the rest of their children.”

Voice 1 

There are many different variables that influence people’s personalities and actions. Birth order is just one interesting theory. And, as Frank Sullaway told ABC news:

Voice 3 

“Humans are complex. You can find things that are more important than birth order. But that does not mean that birth order is not something we can learn from.”

Voice 2 

Has birth order affected your personality? We want to hear your family stories! Leave your comments on the script page for this program.

Voice 1 

The writer and producer of this program was Rena Dam. The voices you heard were from the United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Birth Order Theory’.

Voice 2 

You can also find us on Facebook – just search for spotlightradio. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Do you have brothers or sisters? Are you an oldest child, youngest child, middle child, or only child? Do you think this affects how you act? Write your answer in the comments below.

Join the discussion

7 comments
  • Well, I have two brothers and I am the youngest, think that affected my personality some time with bad as I was young, they didn’t take me to a custom ceremony and I don’t have commitment with some social activities ..etc , but when I grew up I fixed that with time!

  • Well, we are two siblings in the house, me and my older sister. I agree that my sister is more smarter than me and more competitive than me, and i also agree that as the youngest brother i try to take the attention by making jokes and try to make others lough to notice me. But the theory about hight in my case is wrong ivm taller than her in 18 centimeters.

  • yes i think that affected my personality . I have two sister and three brother so i am the oldest sister in my family . I often must take all responsibility in the home

More from this show

Episode 1