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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Birth Rank

Alfred Adler’s theory of personality states that the way we react to people and situations depends upon our lifestyle. This, in turn, reflects our beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world. The structure for this fundamental personality trait is usually established between the ages of four and six.

The most significant influence on formation of lifestyle is position in the family and the interaction among family members. Knowledge of the typical characteristics of each position in a family can help parents and teachers to understand children better and can also be useful for spouses to understand each other better. The following are some typical characteristics. There are exceptions and these characteristics do not apply to all children.

Children with no brothers or sisters may feel incompetent because they are always around more proficient adults. They usually want to be adults and may not get along well with peers. Since they have no rivals, they become the center of adults’ interest and are often pampered. These children have less opportunity to learn how to share, and to settle disputes with peers. If their requests to adults are not granted, they may tend to feel they are being treated unfairly and refuse to cooperate. These children also tend to be creative and have better relations with peers as adults than as children. They tend to become highly responsible adults.

Oldest children were born first and want to stay first. These children are dethroned when the sibling is born. They may then seek undue attention. This may be constructive at first but could become a problem later if they do not receive the attention they crave. Oldest children tend to be steady, responsible, dependable, conforming and get along well with authority figures. They are often high achievers who may be overly concerned with their own prestige. They want to please and feel they have to be perfect.

Second children can be characterized as always running to catch up to the older sibling. Their behavior is usually opposite from that of the first child. If the first child is a problem, they are good and vice versa. They choose different fields of endeavor where there is less competition from the older sibling. They are often the rebels.

Middle children tend to elbow themselves through life. They feel unloved, and squeezed. They have neither the privileges of the oldest or the youngest. They feel adults are unfair, and that they have to struggle against this unfairness. Often they are very adaptable and sociable. They are also sensitive to injustices. If they become discouraged, they can become the problem children in the family.

The youngest children are similar to oldest children but have siblings to observe as models. They are often spoiled by parents and older siblings. They may not be taken seriously because of their size. They may lack self-reliance and seek to have things done for them, often succeeding. Youngest children usually ally with the oldest against the middle child. Some youngest children become highly creative and excel in the things they choose, while others may retain dependent, childish behavior even into adulthood.

It helps couples to understand and to accept each other if they take into account their own positions in their family of origin. When both are only or oldest children, they may find it difficult not getting their own way. They may need to learn and to use negotiating skills more than couples who are not both first or only children. Using the knowledge of position in the family helps adults not only to understand children better but also to understand themselves and each other better.

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