Shaking the family tree 6
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Scene Writer
Sunday, November 05, 2006
3/31/08 at 5:40 AM
Does birth order determine an individual's personality traits?
Behold the first-born, who enters a world where his parents are fascinated by his every breath and movement. His parents brag about any word he utters that sounds like "apple" or "oatmeal" and his precious gas face. He learns at an early age that achievement garners attention.
Then perhaps there's another child, a middle-born. From day one, she's not No. 1. She's No. 2, and she'll spend her whole life being OK with that. But she's plucky, still loveable and such a good sport.
Then that last-born comes along. The parents are so busy that those first steps become more a "Wow, cool!" moment than "OHMYGOD, witness our miracle's magnificent feat!"
So the last-born adapts, she finds other ways to get attention, and basks in the glory of having a full family catering to her.
The dynamics of birth order have long been debated in the scientific community. Yet those generalizations seem so true when applied to our own lives.
While some experts are reluctant to assign tried-and-true personality traits to each family position, most agree that birth order factors into the adults we become.
Mel Whittington, a Tulsa-based licensed professional counselor, dislikes psychological babble and jargon. But he's a believer when it comes to birth order -- because he's a last-born himself.
"I fit that pretty well. It holds pretty true," he said.
Pardon while we dabble in the jargon for a moment: The personality schema psychologists use to codify people are based on the way we perceive, respond and react to a complex situation or set of stimuli (our life experiences).
So birth order factors in from the get-go, along with whatever else happens to you in life, Whittington said.
First-borns are analytical, authoritarian, responsible perfectionists -- they like to hit the target on the first try.
Historians note that almost all U.S. presidents have been first-borns in their families (or at least the first-born son).
Middle-borns can be chameleons, tend to be peer-focused and skilled negotiators. They often appear moody because they're sensitive and absorb emotions from the rest of the family, Whittington said.
Whatever is going on within the whole family structure, middle-borns will unconsciously pick up on it and act it out as a way to solve the issue, he said.
Last-borns are born into a world of adults, so they search for a role entirely their own, he said. They're typically comical, creative, gregarious and more unconventional, preferring to look at the big picture and take more time to process things.
Last-borns resent being pushed into a corner, and are more likely to see all sides, Whittington said.
The idea that birth order brings with it typical personality traits has been around since the 1920s, when Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler began stressing the importance of birth order on personality and character.
Researcher Frank Sulloway made a splash in 1996 with his book "Born to Rebel," based on his comprehensive study of birth order in determining personality and social outlook.
The gist of Sulloway's book: Because of the evolutionary hierarchy in families, first-born children are more likely to be conformists while the later-borns tend to be more creative and more likely to reject the status quo.
Sulloway argues that much of history is sibling rivalry at play, an eternal struggle between those conservative, authoritarian and closed-minded "first-borns" and liberal, rebellious, altruistic and open-minded "later-borns."
Still, some scientists argue that birth order is no more sound science than astrology. Too many outside factors influence personality besides birth order for it to really matter, they say.
But books on birth order sell well on Amazon.com. Consulting firms offer seminars on "Birth order's effects on personality in the workplace." Parenting books caution moms and dads to be mindful of birth order in clashes.
Lest you think the dynamics of birth order change drastically with age, examine your own crew.
Are you the bossy first-born, planning the family holidays and keeping those younger siblings in line?
Perhaps you're the middle child, so loveable despite that chip on your shoulder, always rolling with the punches and mediating the family flare-ups.
Maybe you're the baby of the bunch: Always adored, a little rebellious and extroverted, used to everyone else taking care of you.
Or perhaps you can't identify with any of that, because you're the center of your universe and an only child. Experts classify only children as having many of the perfectionist and goal-oriented traits of first-borns, just without the experience of sharing their toys, parental attention and life with younger siblings.
Some psychologists think birth order factors into the mates we choose, arguing that the best matches are pairings such as first-born and last-born, or a middle child and an only child.
Whittington, a last-born, is married to a first-born. He marvels at his wife's organizational skills (she's his secretary).
Jenny Allison of Tulsa, 35, was a first-born with one younger brother. She's married to a last-born, of course.
Now that she has four kids of her own, she witnesses the dynamics of birth order every day.
"With my first son, I was a more serious parent and tried to turn him into a mini-Einstein," she said. "I kind of got more and more relaxed as time went on."
Her youngest, 2-year-old Katelynn, is definitely her most easygoing of the bunch, and does tend to get a lot of attention -- because she's the baby.
A former registered nurse, Allison writes about her experiences raising the kids on her blog, Jennyology.net. How does a mom of four find the time? Because she's a classic first-born.
"I over organize and over to-do list everything. I've been teased about it so long," she said.
Gail Kamphaus-Crouch is the youngest of three close-knit sisters who she depends on for advice and motivation.
"I'm not incredibly goal-oriented -- I like to have a guide, someone to help me along," she said.
Her oldest sister, Susan Kamphaus, is a psychology professor, and the organized care-taker of the bunch, she said.
"She can get up, dust off her pants and move on," Kamphaus-Crouch said. "She's a take-charge person."
Middle-born Sharon Hammond moved away to California for several years, and moved back to the Tulsa area when she had kids. Sharon can be dramatic and sensitive, but she also rolls with the punches, Kamphaus-Crouch said.
Both older sisters still see her as the baby -- the laid-back one who has an art degree but works in retail, she said.
"They want to put me in a box, and sometimes it's frustrating," she said.
But Kamphaus-Crouch runs to either one anytime she needs advice, she admits.
"Sometimes I go to one sister, and if I don't get the advice I want, I go to the other one," she laughed. "That's the beauty of having two older sisters."
Cary Aspinwall 581-8477