Does Birth Order Determine Personality?

May 21, 2004 — -- Some people say you are the kind of person you are because of when you were born in your family. They say, for example, being born first makes you more responsible.

That seems to hold true in the Cowan home, a North Carolina family who agreed to let 20/20 videotape some of their family interactions. Their first-born child, Jonathan, is very serious. His younger sister, Ellen, likes to torture their youngest brother, Jameson.

Jonathan often intervenes. In one instance, we saw him dragging his sister to the kitchen, telling his mother to discipline her. Jonathan agrees he's responsible. He says it's his job to help parent his younger siblings. "You have to watch over them when the parents are gone," he said.

That pattern fits what I've heard a lot about. A number of researchers say, where you fit in your family has a big influence on how you will act, how well you do in school and how much money you'll make. They say first-borns earn the most.

Are the ‘Babies’ Born to Rebel?

Some researchers say birth order differences are as strong as gender difference. "Within the family, they are about as strong as gender differences," according to Frank Sulloway, author of "Born to Rebel". In his book, Sulloway says later-borns tend to rebel because they often can't do what their older siblings can do, so they start trying to find other ways, even dangerous ones, to get their parents' attention.

"Younger siblings are more inclined to try these experimental, sometimes dangerous things," Sulloway said.

Sulloway points out that leaders of revolutions — like Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx and Fidel Castro — were rebellious younger brothers. He says older brothers are often more conservative — like former Presidents Carter and Clinton and their younger brothers, Billy and Roger. Billy Carter had a beer-making business, and Roger Clinton tried a singing career — far cries from presidential politics.

Sulloway said younger siblings "tend to pick interests that are diametrically opposite to those of their older siblings. They're the risk takers, the adventurers, the people who are constantly trying to find something new and different to do."

Sulloway's got my number. I've taken all kinds of risks, including stupid ones, pursuing my career as a reporter, while my older brother, Tom, lives a much more conservative life, working as a research scientist. He even wears a bow tie, like our father did.

Sulloway also says later-borns rebel by choosing different professions.

He's got me again. I wanted to be a doctor, but became a reporter only because Tom was already a successful doctor, and I didn't think I could compete.

Later-borns rebel, says Sulloway, because they're controlled by the first-born. "Typical first-born strategy is to use the advantages of age, size and power to dominate a younger sibling," Sulloway says.

He pegged us again. When I was born, my brother says one of his first thoughts was that he had somebody to beat up. Tom said, "My best friend beat me up all the time. So it was nice having someone I could turn around and beat up."

Putting Birth Order in Context

But Dalton Conley, author of "The Pecking Order," another book on the effects of birth order, says, "birth order makes about as much sense as astrology, which is almost none."

Conley explains in his book that a lot of other factors affect the behavior of first-borns and last-borns much more strongly. "Early death of a parent, timing of economic shocks to the family, gender expectations and roles in the family, you name it," Conley said, "outside influences, random events — birth order is basically at the bottom of that list."

"It's just like astrology," he added. "When you see a good fit, you say, 'Hah! He's such a Gemini.' When you see a good fit, you say, 'hah, he's such a first-born, aggressive control freak,' but when it doesn't fit the mold you don't even notice it."

Conley says Sulloway's data is quite selective, relying on cases that support his claims and ignoring those that don't. When I asked him about that, Sulloway said, "It is human nature that we look for evidence to confirm our theories. But I took rather unusual steps in born to rebel to minimize as much as possible that sort of bias."

Sulloway does acknowledge that there may not be hard and fast rules about birth order. "Humans are complex," he said, "The fact that you can find things that are more important than say, birth order, doesn't mean that birth order isn't something we don't learn from."

The Neglected Middle Child

While some researchers say Sulloway is right, others are skeptical. But, there is at least one point on which both sides agree: middle children get the worst deal.

According to Conley, middle children are "25 percent less likely to be sent to a private school than they were before, and they're five times more likely to be held back a grade."

Ellen Cowan agrees that being in the middle "stinks." Her older brother gets a better deal because he's going to be first at everything, like prom and graduation and college, she says. And her younger brother, well, he's in a better spot, because he'll get to be the last in the family to go through these milestones. She even said "there's no point" to being a middle child.

Both her brothers agreed. Neither of them said they'd change spots with her.

Ellen's mother sensed that Ellen needed something more and she's trying to make it up to her, partly by doing something with Ellen every week. It's a good idea, say many experts, for parents to do this with any middle child.

Conley said middle children need "time where they're not being compared, at least in their own heads, to their older, or to their younger siblings. Time where they can get the individual attention from their parents."

So while the claims about first-borns and last-borns may not hold up. Parents should be sure to take care of the middle child.

Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry and the constant bickering and fighting that it sparks can drive parents crazy. It's so common, but is there any way to turn brawling brothers into buddies?

Jeff and Alex Franco know all about the frustrations of dealing with sibling rivalry. Their sons, 8-year-old Spencer and 6-year-old Jackson, were constantly at each other's throats. The Francos just couldn't understand why their boys can't get get along, and allowed us to videotape some of the boys' ineractions. "We thought they would be best friends," their mom, Alex, said.

There are many moments when the boys are sweet with each other, but it soon degenerates into fighting. And they fight over just about everything — from standing in front of each other in line, to who gets to drink out of a cup, to keeping track of how many times their dad throws the ball to them when they play catch.

Their parents fear that if it keeps up, the boys will never be friends. "I think it becomes a concern when the chance to come back and heal is gone. … I've had grandparents who went to their graves not speaking to each other. So that's a concern," Jeff Franco said.

Will that happen to Spencer and Jackson? I didn't think so. Watching them fight, it often looked as if they found fighting fun. Spencer seemed proud of it.

I often hated my brother Tom sometimes. I was the little one so I got the worst of the fights, and we fought all the time. My mother drew pictures of it, with her tearing her hair out, and my father ignoring it. That's the way Spencer and Jackson's father usually responds to their fighting too.

Maybe ignoring it is a good idea. Parenting experts point out some kids fight to get their parents attention. So, ignoring the fighting may lead to fewer battles, and also teach the kids how to resolve conflicts on their own.

Dr. Kenneth Hardy, a family therapist at New York's Ackerman Institute, says a certain amount of sibling rivalry is to be expected. It's normal, he says.

My brother Tom and I fought too, but we would make up afterward and I remember liking the excitement of fights. Tom remembers them as fun.

Tom says, "The fighting was like having a dog to play with. And I think there was a caring piece. I remember I fed you bottles and changed your diapers. Believe it or not: You were like a pet."We're friends now, which is a good thing, since the sibling relationship — not your relationship with your spouse or kids or parents — is likely to be the longest relationship of your life.

Rivalry Is Normal … Up to a Point

Hardy says parents can help kids keep rivalry from getting too far out of control if they understand a few things. The birth of a second child is a threat "at the most primal level" to your first-born, according to Hardy.

Think about it. First-born Spencer had been getting all the love, all his parents' attention and then, suddenly, Jackson comes home from the hospital and he's got to compete for his mom and dad's attention.

Some of my fights with my brother were pretty nasty. I remember blinding hatreds.I see the same emotions in Jackson.

Spencer and Jackson's competition for their parents' attention seems endless and fierce.To help Spencer with his dyslexia, his parents spend extra time with him. Jackson, jealous of the extra attention Spencer gets, says he wishes he were dyslexic.

Hardy says the boys' rivalry seems particularly strong and thinks their parents need to do something to get their boys to stop fighting.

Spencer and Jackson's parents want the boys to like each other. "We're sort of trying to help them find the love inside them," Alex says. But our cameras didn't see a lot of love. We caught Spencer on camera giving Jackson a bloody lip.

After watching our tapes, Hardy said he felt Spencer sometimes crossed the line, because he didn't seem to express any remorse or concern after hurting his younger brother. "In most cases," Hardy says, "I would reasonably expect the kid who threw the punch would feel awful about that, would administer to his brother, not push back and smile about it."

Their mom, Alex, does something lots of experts recommend. Away from the anger of the moment, she convenes a family meeting, where everyone can talk about how they felt. But she directs most of the talking.

Back Up Words with Action

Hardy says parents have to acknowledge that sometimes kids want to hurt each other, but they have to tell them not to act on it.

Hardy tells Alex and Jeff Franco they should intervene more when their boys are fighting, especially Jeff.

Often, Jeff tells the boys to stop it, but doesn't follow up with any action.

That's one of the basic difficulties with lots of words and no action, Hardy says, "At some point it would have been helpful for dad to go over and say, 'Spencer, I need you to stop. And when I ask you to stop I expect you to stop.'"

Hardy told the Francos to define some boundaries for Spencer.

He also told the Francos to tell Spencer that he should take pride in being a big brother, but remind him, with that, comes responsibility. He says they should let him know that part of what older brothers do is look out for their younger siblings.

Hardy tells the Francos that Spencer can keep his "top dog" status in a lot of ways. One of those is by belting his brother in the mouth. Another is hearing from his parents that he's "top dog" because he's older.

To reduce some of the rivalry, Hardy advises the Francos to stop bending over backward to make everything equal. That works well for Jackson but diminishes Spencer's role as the oldest, he says.

"There are going to be many instances in life where life for these two boys is not fair," Hardy says, "And that's the way it is sometimes. There are times when you need more, we give you more. Sometimes he needs more, we give him more."

Hardy says the Francos should look for instances when Spencer and Jackson are actually being nice to each other. "The best way to teach is to reward the good," says Hardy. "Catch your kid doing something right and compliment him."

Will the advice work? Two weeks later, we checked in on the Francos, and they say everything is different.

When we went back to visit, we saw Spencer complimenting his brother and even sharing his birthday jelly beans without a fuss.

Two pieces of Hardy's advice have made the most difference — rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior.

If either brother is mean to the other they get a cactus sticker. Three stickers and you lose all privileges for a day.

If they do something nice, even very small things, it's rewarded.

"Neither of them have hurt each other since we started this whole cold prickly, warm fuzzy program which is, in my opinion a miracle in itself," Alex says.

Also, the Francos say encouraging Spencer to take pride in being the oldest has made a huge difference. Alex says, "It has taken on a life of its own, because we have expected Spencer to behave in a way as a protector and he's done it. And because Jackson now trusts him, they want to spend more time together. It's just made us feel like we're on the right track."

This report was originally broadcast May 21, 2004