Moshe, Yechezkhel, and Dovid were playing in the living room while their mother made dinner. Eight-year-old Moshe was busy figuring out how to attach his Lego rocket ship to his model of the solar system. He was using everything in his arsenal – ruler, magnets, glue, the stepladder, and even his mother’s attention. “Mommy, do we have string?” “Which planet has the greatest gravitational pull?” “My rocket ship is red, so should I put it near Mars, the red planet?”
Meanwhile, five-year-old Yechezkhel, was coloring in a picture he and his friends had started at school. They were in a secret spy club and Yechezkhel was in charge of their secret missions. Yechezkhel outlined pictures of his friends and made symbols for each of their special powers.
And, three-year-old Dovid was walking in between Moshe and Yechezkhel. First, he pretended to be a rocket ship, making Moshe laugh with his crazy swirls and dips. He dove headfirst off the couch onto a pillow, “Landing on Earth!” Then, he picked up a crayon and drew a three-year-old version of a smiley face. “Look, Yechezkhel, I’m in your club,” he grinned.
The fate of birth order
Different children play differently, but is that really what’s going on with Moshe, Yechezkhel, and Dovid? Or are the boys simply doing what is typical for first-borns, middle children, and youngest?
Studies show that much of our personalities are a result of our positions in our families. Dr. Frank Sulloway in his book “Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creativity” discusses the different fates of those born first, middle, or last. Let’s look at the different ways that birth order can affect personalities. I have created a chart that outlines the different strengths and weaknesses that children have based on their placement in the family.
What can you do to nurture your children?
Because birth order can affect most children in the same ways, there are ways that you can help your children overcome weaknesses that birth order has thrown their way:
Oldest: Share failure. Oldest children need to hear from their parents that it is okay to fail. Parents should share their own failures with their children (particularly ones that are no longer painful). Talk about the time you didn’t get the part in the school play or the time you didn’t get the job that you thought you would love. You are still standing and smiling. This will help your first-born understand that failure is not the end of the world.
Youngest: Give responsibility. We tend to let our youngest off the hook because we say he is not old enough to clear off the table, or put his clothing in the hamper, or make his bed. In reality, you probably would have made your oldest do the same thing at your youngest’s age. Therefore, do not underestimate your youngest abilities. Give him plenty of responsibility. Ultimately, he will benefit from it.
Middle: Attention. This one is the most intuitive, but it is also often the hardest. Try to give your middle child (or children) a shot at the limelight whenever you can. Maybe he can choose what to make for dinner one night or maybe he can sing the Four Questions at the Seder this year because he studied it in two languages. Perhaps you can go into his classroom, without any younger siblings tagging along, and read a book, bake a cake, or do some other age-appropriate enrichment. With this extra attention, it’s harder for the middle child to slip through the cracks.
Studies show that birth-order shapes a lot of who we are, but we are not slaves to the order in which we were born. As a parent, you can help nurture all that nature provides.
Attention: The oldest gets the most attention from the parents throughout his whole life because he is always doing things for the first time.
Teacher: The oldest gets to function as a teacher for his younger siblings, thereby reinforcing his skills.
Higher earning power: Research shows that first-borns make more than later born children throughout their lives.
Type A: First-borns are generally controlling and feel the need to be in charge of all aspects of their lives.
Fear of failure: Because first-borns are often good at what they do and have always had parental help, they have a great fear of failure.
Less agreeable: First-borns do not have to learn how to gain attention because they have it. Therefore, they are often less agreeable than later born children.
Go with the flow: The middle child has to do what the oldest wants and what the youngest needs. Therefore, the middle child quickly learns to go with the flow.
Socially adept: Because the middle child plays with both his older and younger siblings, he is able to interact with all different types of people in different situations.
Gets lost in the crowd: The oldest does things first and the youngest needs hand holding. The middle child will often get lost in the shuffle.
More connected to friends than to family: As result of getting lost in the crowd and being socially adept, the middle child can look to outside social sources. This can lead to the middle child creating a strong circle of friends, rather than being highly connected to family.
Charming: In order to get along with everyone, the youngest develops his social skills and is charming and agreeable.
Adventurous: Youngest are not afraid of failure and will strike out on their own to explore unchartered waters.
Risk taker: Everything has already been done before the youngest gets into the picture. So, sometimes the youngest can often be fearless to the point of recklessness in an attempt to do something novel.
Feel unimportant: The rest of the family is older and more accomplished, and this can make the youngest feel insignificant.
Rifka Schonfeld, educator and social skills specialist, has served the Jewish community for three decades. She is the founder and director SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular and Hebrew studies. 718-382-5437, rifkaschonfeld.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.