The other day I was hiking with my youngest child when we hit an obstacle. My initial inclination was to assist my 5-year-old over the pile of fallen branches. Yet I resisted and asked him to see if he could solve this problem by himself. He was quickly able to find his way to the other side of the trail. His face beamed with confidence, and it left me wondering. I thought, Why is it always so hard for me to let him demonstrate his independence? Is it because he's the baby of the family?
As a mom to three sons, I often find myself holding onto each stage of my youngest's childhood with a death grip. Deep down, I think I know it will be the last time I experience them as a mother. Yet, as I've become more cognizant of how, I've realized it could inhibit his independence. So slowly but surely, it's changing the way I parent for the good.
Do parents treat their children differently based on birth order?
I must admit that I was a bit of a helicopter parent at times with my oldest child. Yet now that I have three children, I identify much more with free-range parenting. (These are the same boys that I regularly have to keep from roughhousing.) According to Psychology Today, “The third-born enters a household with parents who have had years of experience in raising children, and feel more relaxed about each sniffle or diaper rash. As a result, the third-born is often a calmer, more easygoing child.”
I can definitely attest to this; however, these years of experience can have a downside. As author Meri Wallace explains, “Busy parents have little time to teach the youngest how to tie his shoes or dress himself and find it more expedient in the chaos of family life to do things for him.”
This is something I can definitely relate to. When I had my first son, I was a stay-at-home mom, laser focused on all aspects of his well-being. Now I’m a work-from-home mom of three sons. I'm also dealing with a chronic illness, and life is a lot more complicated. The combination of a busier home life and my desire to hold onto my son’s childhood has made me less likely to allow him to exercise his independence, but I am working on changing that. But how much of an impact does birth order really have on behavior and personality traits?
Do birth order and being the baby of the family affect personality traits?
Psychologist Alfred Adler first wrote about birth order and its association with personality characteristics in 1927. He describes oldest children as being natural leaders and high achievers who are also neurotic due to going from having their parents all to themselves to being “dethroned” once a sibling is born. According to Adler, middle children tend to be independent peacemakers who may feel that life is unfair, and youngest children are creative, highly social, adept at getting others to do things for them, and sometimes "spoiled." Some have coined this last series of personality traits as "youngest child syndrome,” as this article from Healthline explains.
Studies have shown that first-born children are 30 percent more likely to be CEOs, politicians, or managers and may have a slightly higher IQ than later-born children. The studies point to “broad shifts in parental behavior” and “lower parental human capital investments” as explanations for the results.
Not all researchers agree that birth order has any sway over personality traits, however. One study that followed more than 20,000 adults found “no birth-order effects on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination.”
Birth order may have an influence on behavior, but it does not ultimately define our personalities and life trajectories. Many factors have an influence on our personalities, including gender roles, socioeconomic status, parental involvement, and stereotypes. Also, the way we feel about our order in the line of siblings and role in the family may be just as important (or more so) than our actual birth order.
What can parents do to promote independence in their youngest child?
Now that I have acknowledged my tendency to want to baby the baby of our family, I am actively looking for ways to allow him to exhibit his independence—something he always seems anxious to do.
One way to help the youngest child to become more independent is not excluding them from responsibilities just because they are little. My son loves to be a helper and participates in household chores just like his older siblings. I’m also learning to not jump in and solve his quarrels with his older brothers or to make assumptions and blame his older siblings whenever someone gets hurt while playing.
It’s important to me that my son doesn’t feel like he has to compete for attention. I also don't want his milestones diminished because his parents have already witnessed his older siblings reach them. I am working on celebrating his efforts and accomplishments and not stepping in to solve his problems out of convenience.
Whether or not birth order has an effect on personality characteristics is less important to me than the question of if I am holding my youngest child back for selfish reasons, because I want to hold onto his babyhood just a little bit longer. My goal is to “let grow" by encouraging all my children to exercise their independence and by celebrating their progress along the way.