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An Austrian psychiatrist, by the name of Alfred Adler, first introduced the theory that a child's place amongst their family, in particular their birth order, can affect the child's personality both in and out of the classroom. He postulated that a child's place amongst their siblings had a profound effect on their psychological composition, and those children who were first, second and last born would all have significantly different behaviours, personalities, intelligence and classroom dynamics. I have two siblings, both younger, and my aim is to apply Adler's theories to my family, to identify if there is some merit to his claims. Adler's theories also cover an in-depth explanation of multiple middle children, twins and the only child, however as I will be discussing my family, they will be omitted.
First Born: Personality
First born children are unique, in the way that they begin their life as an only child. They are surrounded with an unbounded amount of love and attention from their parents and nearby family. This all changes when a second child is introduced into the family. The first born finds themselves lost and insignificant compared to their new baby brother or sister, and can't understand why all of the attention they were receiving from their parents is now focused on the baby. They are dethroned as the main focus of the parents and are forced to share the affection with their new sibling. The first born initially believes they have done something wrong, and that they are at fault for their parent's rejection, which can lead to neurosis and helplessness. The age of the first born has a substantial effect on how the child will react to such rejection and the long term impact it will have. If the first born is dethroned before the age of two, the child has no understanding of words or what has happened and is therefore more severely affected. However, if this occurs when the child is greater than three years of age, they have already built the foundations of a manner of life, and subsequently are more capable of handling such dethronement.
The first born often develop a determination to protect and help others. They are likely to imitate the behaviour of their parents and take on a role of responsibility to help, protect and teach their younger sibling. But such determination can lead to dominant behaviour, making others feel dependent on them. This behaviour begins at dethronement, when the child pleaded and fought for their parent's attention. If the parents reacted aggressively, the child is more likely to be high-tempered, short fused and disobedient.
The first born tend to dwell on the past, thinking back to when they were the centre of attention. They are power driven, always trying to gain power and attention to compensate for what they have lost. They are quite negative people and are likely to be pessimistic about the future. The strengths of the first born include their ability to lead, listen, teach and learn, which often makes them seek more stable careers where they rule over less enthusiastic people. These traits allow them to become excellent researchers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, counsellors and law enforcement officers.
There are two typical types of first born children, compliant and aggressive. Common traits between the two include ambitious, logical and scholarly. Table I outlines these two traits.
Table I. Compliant and aggressive traits of first born children.
Nurturers and carers
First born: In the classroom
In their early primary school days, the first born is often seen as a daydreamer. They are constantly drawn back to memories of the arrival of the younger sibling, and similar to the attention seeking at home, attention is craved in the classroom. They will stare off into space and think about ways of how they can impress their classmates or teacher. They can be mischievous and sometimes misbehave to gain attention. At other times they can be very selfish and abruptly interfere with the class, in an attempt to impress their teacher, with their knowledge, or even undermine them. Sometimes they will listen to the teacher, but struggle to retain knowledge. They can often alienate themselves from groups, or in contrast, they can stand out and be the leader the group, but they rarely sit in the middle.
By secondary school, depending on the success of their transition, daydreaming decreases, but still continues, with similar resulting behaviour as mentioned above. They have limited attention in class but still manage to complete their work. They will often seek attention from their peers by helping them do their work, even if this means letting them cheat off their answers or doing it for them. They gain their teachers approval and make themselves the centre of attention, as the smartest one in the class. The first born craves attention, which results in either a confident and forceful, needy and anxious, or a quiet teacher's pet persona.
Second Born: Personality
The second born child is born into a remarkably different situation compared to the first born. From the time they are born, they share their parents love and attention with an older sibling, and are therefore more open to co-operation. If the eldest child does not bully or fight with their new sibling, then the second child will be well situated amongst the family. Throughout their childhood they are a follower, with the older sibling taking a leadership role. They are inspired and determined to equal the success of their sibling, which makes a typical second born child easy to identify. They behave as though they are competing at everything, constantly racing to catch up and surpass their older sibling. The second child can often be more naturally talented then their elder, by always looking for new activities to do to beat their elder sibling. They put more effort in and train harder, but this drive can easily be abandoned if they feel they are no comparison to their rival. In these cases, they resent and are jealous of the elder sibling, but will substitute a friend or classmate as their rival. The second born is always trying catch-up to someone as they feel that they are always behind. In comparison to the first born, who dreads falling from their position of superiority.
Second born's also tend to be perfectionists. They identify something they are good at, and work hard to improve. They don't react well to compliments, as they see them as a "good try" mentality, where their mother said well done for making a scribble, where their elder sibling drew a house. They thrive for perfection and compete with their elder at school, physical education, and even socially, but never believing they can get there. They prefer suggestions, in ways that they can improve, and this leads them to believe in logic. Therefore their decisions are not made from emotion, but instead logic, seeming sometimes heartless and discouraging, as they will not put effort into something they don't believe they can perfect.
Second born's are likely to be the exact opposite of their elder sibling, therefore their career paths are somewhat different. They don't like rules or hierarchy systems and tend to work best when they go at their own pace. This leads them down a more creative path which included careers in the areas of art, sales, advertising or business/management.
Again, in the second born, there are two typical types. These are not as clearly defined, so are referred to as type 1 and type 2. Common traits to both types include flexible, competitive and attention seeking. Table II outlines the characteristics seen in both types of second born child.
Table II. Type 1 and type 2 traits of second born children.
Type 1 traits
Type 2 traits
Second born: In the classroom
The second born is also a perfectionist in the classroom. They are constantly driven by the fact that whatever they have done, the first born has already done it better. The second born has trouble with submitting homework, even though they can complete it with no problems. It is their drive for perfection that often deters them from submitting or even completing it at all, due to feeling that their homework is inadequate compared to what their predecessors have done. They are known to make up simple, but not extravagant excuses, such as "I left it at home" and "I forgot to put it in my bag." They refuse do anything unless they can do it perfectly, and this can result in trouble with schooling and life, when they realize they cannot do everything perfectly. However, encouraging them, for example by saying "just do your best," still does not help them, as they still have it imprinted in their brain, that their best must be perfection. They prosper on their need for details, so when assigning them a task that is unfamiliar to them, providing them with mountains of resources and details often helps them recover from what they see as an impossible task.
Last born: Personality
The last born, like the first born, is also born into a unique position. They have elder siblings, but none that are younger, and therefore they can never be dethroned. Just like the second born, they have sibling rivals and this also gives the second born an extraordinary thrive for competition, as they now have to pass not one but two rivals. The last born is usually more creative, more athletic, more ambitious but is also less cautious and has no fear of consequence. They remain the centre of attention and can be very troublesome. They are also typically very spoilt and spoilt child can never be independent. The last born tends to be quite loud, talkative and immature and they can fall into a trap where they think the whole world revolves around them and it is their right to be looked after by others. They also feel inferior to their elder siblings which can result in the belief that they will be the youngest forever, leading to grudges on anyone who is older, stronger or more experienced. Although this unsocial behaviour is usually stopped by their mother at a young age.
The elder siblings of the last born try to gain dominance over them by bullying and teasing. This aggravation causes the third/last born to complain, but when the mother ignores their complaints, the teasing tends to cease as the elder children don't get the attention they are trying to acquire. Once the teasing stops, this gives them confidence that they can defend themselves and gives the child strong, assertive qualities, gaining independence. Since they miss out on the effect of tutoring a younger sibling, they feel a need to put aside their own needs and help others in any way the can. The last born have a strong creative ability and nurturing nature seeing them in careers such as the arts, sales, nursing, invention, advertising and acting.
As with second borns, last borns are also grouped into type 1 and type 2 traits, as shown in table III.
Table III. Type 1 and type 2 traits of last born children.
Type 1 traits
Type 2 traits
Dependent on others
Last born: In the classroom
Last born children in the classroom behave in a socially confident manner. They are often very talkative and loud and can occasionally complain about schoolwork. They can be sometimes bully and control other students, as they treat others how they were treated by their siblings. Punishment is ineffective due to their lack of fear of others and consequence. They may also use their peers to do their work or even cheat off.
But other last born children can be the complete opposite, where they are the ones who are picked on and are used by their peers. They usually sit quietly, amongst a small group or just by themselves, as they have a hard time making friends or trusting other people. They fear being hurt, or embarrassed, but they still believe it's their job to please others. They revert to being a slave, not for attention, just because they believe they have to. These children are often very bright and go out of their way to help their friends do their schoolwork and homework.
Intelligence among siblings
First born's usually have the highest intellectual quota (IQ) amongst their siblings. Several studies have been undertaken to understand this, with the confluence model the best explanation. The confluence model says that the first born in the family is normally the most intelligent of the siblings, because they are born into the adult environment, whereas the other siblings are born into a mixed environment. The first born often takes it as their job to tutor their younger siblings, with great effect on their ability to understand and learn more efficiently. The youngest sibling, misses out on this tutoring effect, and therefore isn't usually as intelligent as their older brother or sisters. It has also been found, the larger families, with four and above children, aren't as intelligent as smaller family sizes of two to three. Of course, there are many other factors which come into this equation such as family dynamics, parental intelligence and socioeconomic status, but on average the first born is usually the most intelligent.
A New Zealand study of intellectual comparisons of more than 1000 young adults found that there are significant associations with birth order, IQ and educational qualifications. The study was comprised of 396 first, 383 second and 61 last born's, where each individual was surveyed and followed until they reached the age of 25, with it beginning when they first attended primary school. Table IV, below, summarises their findings.
Table IV. Associations between birth order and measures of educational achievement up to 25 years of age.
Mean child IQ (at 8-9 years of age)
Attainment of primary school certificate (%)
No higher school qualifications (%)
Attainment of higher school certificate (%)
Attended university (%)
Gained university qualifications (%)
Mean overall achievement score
This study had many covariate factors including parents educational qualifications, birth weight, if the child was breast fed, family size, and family socioeconomic status. But even given these factors, there was an obvious link between birth order and later educational qualifications.
My family dynamics and personality
There are three children in my family, and two parents, each individuals information is listed below in table V.
Each member of my family have significantly different personalities, however there are some similarities. Neither of my parents came from highly intelligent backgrounds, where their parents were either farmers or tree loggers. Neither fully completed secondary school, but found jobs that they were happy with and were financially supportive to start a family. They had three children, myself, my brother Adam and sister Stephanie. We are all immensely different to each other, as we all grew up differently. We all attended Colac Primary School and the Colac Collage for secondary schooling. To observe differences in our personalities and classroom behaviour, I have school reports from years 3, 6 and 9. I chose these specific reports, as they are an even spread and I couldn't locate all of each siblings reports.
Table V. Family Information.
Father (fourth born out of five)
Completed Yr 10
Gardener, greenkeeper, delivery driver, council worker, machinery operator
Mother (third born out of four)
Completed Yr 11
Bakery assistant, child care worker, kitchen hand
Myself (first born)
Completed Yr 12, attending University
Brother (second born)
Completed Yr 11, attending TAFE
Sister (third born)
Completing Yr 10, attending TAFE (hairdressing)
First Born (myself): Personality
According to Adler's model, the first born traits listed above are actually quite accurate. I like to please to people, and tend to always seek approval and attention. I am quite organised and punctual, but don't like complete cleanliness, as I believe that a little clutter is needed to be organised and that work can be done. I am quite competitive, I like playing sports and general games, I like to win and get annoyed when I don't. I am co-operative and am a team player, however in a team I'm not a natural leader, but I will do what I can to improve and get the task done. I like to argue and even if this aggravates people, I will stand by what I believe, but become submissive when it comes to a physical confrontation. I am definitely a perfectionist, but with not everything I do, only the things that I believe I am good at, and the things I enjoy. I can be selfish at times when there is something I want, such as telling others what to do when it comes to my enjoyment, for example watching a movie, TV program or a game I want to play.
First Born (myself): Classroom Behaviour
I loved primary school. I really enjoyed learning and trying new things. In grade 3, school was very basic, simple reading, writing, mathematics, art, LOTE and PE. My grade 3 reports indicated that I did very well, with little trouble in completing the work set. My teacher was very pleased with behaviour and the amount of work I put in. "Ryan has produced very good results because of his interested and enthusiastic approach to all classroom activities. He is easily motivated and contributes willingly in all areas of the curriculum. He has a great sense of humour, and has done a very good years work."
Grade 6 for me was one of the best years of my life, I had plenty of friends and I'd almost finished primary school meaning I was on top of the school hierarchy. I was also elected Yellow house captain by my fellow peers and the younger students looked up to me. I felt that I lead them well, as at the end of the year we won the school house trophy. The school work was much harder, so I remember struggling a bit in mathematics and science, but my parents always helped me with my homework and my Behind the News (BTN) reports. I really liked my grade 6 teacher, he had great methods for motivating us, and making sure we did our best in the classroom. My end of year report was very positive and I had established the majority of the curriculum. "Ryan has worked very well this year. He has a very good overall work standard and works quickly and independently at all tasks set. Apart from the occasional day-dream, he participates well in class discussion. He has a really amazing general knowledge, thoroughly enjoying our daily quiz sessions. He has also produced some excellent BTN reports and computer articles. He has been an asset to his house as one of the captains and has used his common sense and humour to be a worthy role model both in the grade and the school."
Secondary school for me wasn't as fun as primary school. I'd lost that responsibility and leadership role I once had, and found myself amongst new people I didn't know and in unknown environment. I didn't have trouble with the school work, but I found that my behaviour socially had changed tremendously, with my confidence around people and confidence in myself decreased. I believe that my transition from primary to secondary school completely changed my behaviour and personality, as I am the complete opposite of what I once was.
Year 9 was a fun year as I was able to choose all of my classes. I had interests in sport and games, digital art, maths, science and English. I also undertook extracurricular activates with the school, such as the Surf Lifesaving Program and the Duke of Edinburgh Award. My end of year report was great, I had gotten A's and B's for all my classes, with a distinct high performance in maths, science and computing. However, after year 9, the work got harder, I began to struggle and I found myself losing confidence in my school work and began to day dream about social activities. I was losing friends and having trouble making new ones. I wasn't very popular and was constantly being bullied. This drop of self esteem during mid to late secondary school really hindered my ability to work efficiently in class. I still liked school and enjoyed learning but I become lazy, wasn't listening intently and failed to complete homework. After a very shaky year 12, I completed secondary school with an ENTER of 68.85. I was very depressed about this score, but happy that it was sufficient to allow me entry into university. I had a passion for computers and physics and am currently completing my Bachelor of Science/Science Education.
Second born (Adam): Personality and Classroom Behaviour
As I don't know the experiences of my siblings at school, I am relying on their school reports and observed behaviours in the home environment. My brother in grade 3 was like any other student, well behaved, did his work and co-operated well. "Adam has a delightful personality and is a very valuable member of the class. He is always co-operative and well behaved and tries very hard to produce his best. Adam is a popular member of the class and deserves his excellent results.
In grade 6, my brother seemed ahead of what I was at the same time; he was above average in all aspects of the curriculum and a very popular student. "Adam is a friendly and co-operative student who on most occasions positively applies himself to his work. It is from a consistent application that Adam is making pleasing progress with his understanding. Adam's personality makes him a popular and valued class member."
The transition from primary to secondary school was not near the effect that it had on me, my brother continued his consistent work right through till year 8. But the second half of year 8, something changed. His A's and B's quickly turned to C's and D's, especially in the mathematics and science subjects. In year 9 he got the choice of which subjects he wanted to undertake and compared to me he chose more technical and arts based subjects, whilst avoiding advanced maths and science. His grades picked up, but the subject material was less intelligence based.
My brother from when he was young, has changed a significant amount to what he is now. At primary school he was smart and popular, but also very shy and quiet, showing characteristics of a type 2 second born. Somewhere during mid to late year 8, when he was 14, his ability to concentrate and apply himself to his schoolwork diminished. He became more social, always going out with friends and converted into a type 1 second born, as he is very loud, outgoing and easy going. But the one thing my brother has maintained over the years, is that he is incredibly impressionable. He follows his friends and will do what he can to stay in his friendship circles. I believe that somewhere in year 8, he met someone that distracted him from his work and steered him away from his past behaviours, as from this time he became more territorial and aggressive. Currently my brother is a third year apprentice mechanic. He quit school during year 11 as he felt he had no reason to stay. He is still quite intelligent but he lacks the drive and motivation to apply himself to his work, as he is far more aligned with his friends and his social status.
Last born (Stephanie): Personality and Classroom Behaviour
My sister in grade 3 was very similar to my brother and I, quite intelligent and popular. "Stephanie is a very enthusiastic student who completes all set tasks to the best of her ability. Stephanie participates well during discussions displaying a sound general knowledge. Her willingness to do any jobs around the classroom is pleasing to see. Stephanie always practises the values being undertaken at school. Stephanie has a great sense of humour and shares it with the rest of the classroom often."
In grade 6, Stephanie's results were about spot on the average for someone her age. She was a very talkative student but also very helpful. "Stephanie has been a pleasure to teach this year, she is always positive and enthusiastic towards all aspects of the curriculum. She has worked extremely hard all year both in class and at home. She is consistent with homework and Today the News (TTN) presentations have been exceptional. She has been a peer mediator and buddy, all of these roles involve a huge commitment and Stephanie has proven to be a most reliable and responsible student. Stephanie is also very thoughtful, often offering assistance to other students and myself."
Once Stephanie attended secondary school, her social habits got the best of her. She consistently talked in class from year 7 onwards and this severely hindered her school work progress. She struggled to finish set tasks on time and even to submit them. She excelled at humanities, metals, woodwork, PE, music and especially dance. But failed to keep up with science, mathematics and English, as she wasted class time with idle chatter and didn't ask for help when she needed it. This was not helped by her absenteeism, due to family reasons, with 30 days on average per semester. This absence severely took a toll on her set tasks, as she missed a lot of schoolwork and did not put in the extra effort to catch up. Currently Stephanie is completing year 10, and also undertaking a TAFE course in hairdressing. She plans to leave school at the end of year 10, as she doesn't enjoy it anymore.
My sister over the years has changed a lot. When she younger she was always very cute and polite, she did all her work and seemed to have no troubles. But as she progressed through secondary school, her social behaviours took over her school work. She was always very talkative and loud but didn't seem to express this in the classroom. Her social confidence grew with having lots of friends. It seemed she had a new friend over at our house every day. She played netball, basketball and loved dancing and was very active all the time. Stephanie has a combination of the type 1 and type 2 traits, such as loud, confident, caring, selfish, dependent and fearless. Her most positive attribute is her caring and helpful nature. She will always help someone in need. She used to help mum in the crèche, continues to help her in the aged care home and she was always there for Nan when she was struggling with breast cancer.
From what I have discovered from my family, I can say that Adler's theories and claims do have merit, although they are only theories and can be in no means a blanket description of any child, in a certain birth order. His claim that first born's are generally the most intelligent of the siblings, which in my family's case and in the findings of various other studies have been proven true. However, it must be understood that there are several factors in what determines a child's personality and intelligence as they grow. In my case and my sibling's case, we have all changed our behaviours both in and out of the classroom, as we were exposed to different people and different situations.