Friday, October 10, 2014

The Birth Order Book

I've been learning a lot about myself and others through this book: The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are by Dr. Kevin Leman. Who wouldn't love a book that has a section entitled "The World Needs More Unspoiled Middleborns"? 

But when I try to tell others about it, they seem to like to interrupt me by showing me how they don't fit the typical birth order mold. I don't blame them. I would've done the same except that Leman does such a great job describing how Middleborns are the wildcard. YES! Finally someone got it right. So I'm putting all the important and interesting bits here so others can see what I've learned without interrupting or having to read the book for themselves. Who knows, maybe I'll just whet your appetite.

First, let's get one thing straight. The categories of firstborn, middleborn, lastborn, and only child aren't clear-cut and simple, especially nowadays with remarriages, step-children, adoptions, twins, physical handicaps, and deaths. All these factors can alter a person's position in a family. Of course, personality, domineering or absent parents (or siblings), genes, and gender also can alter someone’s make-up. I'm only going to describe the basics of this birth order information.

Here's how it works. Firstborns are the first born child of each gender in a family. So in my family both Jacob and Jonalyn are considered firstborns. Firstborns can also be the child whose same-sex sibling is five or more years older than him or her. Thus, Jessica has many firstborn tendencies even though she’s the youngest because there’s almost a 5-year gap between her and me. When there’s a gap of seven to more years above or below a child, that child falls into the only child category. 

Youngest children are more easily defined as the child born last, but again when there’s big gap between siblings, a middleborn can have many lastborn tendencies. Thus, both my dad and I (who are third born middle children) have some lastborn tendencies because our youngest sibling (Terri and Jessica) are younger than us by a few years. For the first five years of my life—a particularly formative time of a child’s life—I was the baby. 

Families of only two children fall into a different category altogether. Leman has a separate section of his book just to talk about families of two children. I seem to know a lot of families in this boat. When both children are of different sexes, both can be considered firstborns; however, the younger may have some lastborn tendencies as well. When they're the same sex, they tend to be more competitive with one another.

I found the information on the firstborns and lastborns the most eyeopening so I’ll start there. After all, I bet you don’t really want to hear about the middleborns anyway.

At family and parenting seminars, Leman likes to make sport of spotting the firstborns and only children in a room. They’re the best dressed ones that came on time and prepared. The number one characteristic of firstborns and only children, according to Leman, is being a perfectionist. Now this doesn’t mean that everything they do is done perfectly. It simply means that they have a difficult time with anything that’s not perfect.

If this doesn't seem to be true, it's probably because many firstborns become discouraged perfectionist, which means their desks are often messy, their lists of to-do’s undone, and their projects left to the last minute because they fear imperfection. This is the 18-month-old who doesn’t like messes. This is the child who doesn’t turn in his/her homework even if it’s done because he/she fears it isn’t perfect. This is the procrastinator who is afraid to start a project because he/she knows that in order for the project to be just right, he/she has a lot of work to do. If they can’t do it right, they don’t want to do it at all.

Why are the firstborns and only’s this way? Because they grew up watching mom and dad do everything so much better than they. Mom and dad drew perfect circles, so little Johnny strives to draw perfect circles as well. Never mind the fact that he’s four and drawing perfect circles is beyond him. When little Johnny has no older siblings to watch fail or do a less than perfect job, Johnny starts to think that perfection is expected of him.

Firstborns also experience the most pressure from first-time parents who are trying to do everything right. “One side overprotective, anxious, tentative, and inconsistent, but on the other side strict, disciplined, demanding, always pushing, and encouraging better performance.” And let’s not forget the fireworks that were set off for all those firsts. All the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were encouraging little Jane’s first steps, which is why research shows that firstborns walk and talk earlier than their siblings. 

This is why firstborns have most of the exacting jobs. They’re good at doing practically perfect work. Most accountants, airline pilots, surgeons, presidents, editors, engineers, and CEO’s are firstborns. Not all, but most. They’re the flaw-spotters, the reliable, critical, scholarly, logical, techie’s who are well-organized, conscientious, and hard-driving, which is why firstborns and only children are the ones that Leman counsels the most. Trying to be perfect all the time is stressful.

Leman devotes two chapters in his book (chapters 5 and 6) to overcoming perfectionism by learning how to do things with excellence and not perfectionism. But I’m not going to get to that here. I would like to note that while I’m a middleborn, I have a dose of perfectionism myself, which is why I’ve enjoyed accounting, piloting, editing and teaching math. I think all the Taylor children have a dose of perfectionism, some more than others. WINK. WINK. Yes, I’m talking about you. But let’s not mention names.

Anyway, onto the lastborns, which I find the most tragic. 

I was rather peeved with Leman when he spent the majority of the lastborn's chapter talking about himself. He’s a lastborn, you see. And he openly admits that the lastborns are the attention seekers. He says, “I couldn’t compete with a 10.0 sister and a 9.75 brother, but I could get their attention by driving them crazy.” 

The difference between the oldest and the youngest is, of course, those older siblings. They’ve cleared the road for the youngest, so to speak, but they’ve also left little for the picking. If the firstborn had all eyes for his or her first steps, the lastborns have older siblings rolling their eyes and saying, “Who cares? I did that like 5 years ago.” 

Lastborns never catch up. When they graduate from high school, their older siblings are graduating from college. When they marry, their older siblings are having children. Nothing that they do seems unique, so they become the risk-takers and the comedians. How else are they going to get anyone to notice them? They’ve got to prove it to the world that they’re valuable. Thus, they often develop this I’ll-show-them attitude. They’re persistent and tenacious.

On this flip-side, because they’re the lastborns, they have all those older siblings to dote 0n them. The older brothers can become the protectors; the older sisters can become the secondary mothers. Everything they do is cute and cuddly, which is why the lastborns tend to get away with murder. They know they’re cute, and so they rise to the occasion. They’re charming, affectionate, and perhaps a bit absent-minded. After all, wasn’t it cute when little Jack came to the kitchen without having brushed his hair?

This dichotomy of parenting, this being coddled one moment and then cuffed and put down and ignored the next, tends to turn out some rather confused lastborns. They can be on top of the world one moment and in the pits of despair the next. They can be powerhouses capable of taking on the world one moment and basket cases the next. They’re ready to take on huge tasks today, but then tomorrow they’re asking you to do it for them.

Leman notes an interesting fact about lastborns. They often seem befuddled because for so many years their siblings who were older, faster, and smarter could fool that little one into believing anything. No wonder the lastborns have troubles. I was part of the problem. Dangit! I thought middleborns were perfect!

So, that takes me to the middleborns, which Leman introduces with the following letter that was written to him.

Dear Dr. Leman,
I counted the number of pages in The Birth Order Book, and fewer are devoted to the middle children than any other birth order! What gives?
Feeling ignored,
Middle Child Reader

Leman replied: Dear Middle Child:
So what? What’s the big deal? Besides, you’re used to it. Get a life!
Happy family photo albums,
Dr. Leman

This made me smile. And in following in Leman’s tradition, I’ll do the same. There’s not much that needs to be said about the middleborns anyway. Beside, you’d think I was bragging. 

The middleborns are the squeezed ones in the family. They’re not over-disciplined to achieve. They aren’t coddled into ineptness. They aren’t old enough to do what older brother Billy is doing. They’re not young enough to get away with what little sister Sally is doing. They’re just there. Thus, middleborns are usually the first to seek recognition and acceptance outside the family. As a result they have the easiest time growing up and moving on. See, I told you it would sound like bragging.

But let me admit some of the downsides. Because they often feel burned by their families, rejected or ignored, middleborns tend to be secretive and thus not open communicators, after all, no one wanted to listen to them in the family, why would anyone want to listen to them now? Yes, because of this, they’re more likely to be mentally tough and independent, but they’re also the least likely to go seek counseling or advice from others. They’ve made it this far by themselves. They certainly don’t need your help. You can imagine how this can be a problem in life.

Leman has several other interesting sections in his book. He talks about which birth orders work well together in a marriage. If you’re interested, marriage between an oldest and a youngest are the most successful, and a marriage between two only children or two oldest is the most volatile. 

He also talks about birth order in the business world and in parenting. I found this part particularly encouraging because after reading the book, I was thinking, “Great! My children are going to be screwed up no matter what!” The correct response to that is, yes, they will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, except to realize that of course my children aren’t going to be perfect. I’m not, after all. Wait, did I just say that? I mean, yes, I’m perfect, but even perfect parents make goofy kids. 

So in summary, here they are, straight from the book, the tendencies of each of the four birth orders.

A. Firstborn: perfectionist, reliable, conscientious, a list maker, well organized, hard driving, a natural leader, critical, serious, scholarly, logical, doesn’t like surprises, a techie
B. Middleborn: mediator, compromising, diplomatic, avoids conflict, independent, loyal to peers, has many friends, a maverick, secretive, used to not having attention
C. Lastborn: manipulator, charming, blames others, attention seeker, tenacious, people person, natural salesperson, precocious, engaging, affectionate, loves surprises
D. Only child: little adult by age seven, very thorough, deliberate, high achiever, self-motivated, fearful, cautious, voracious reader, black-and-white thinker, talks in extremes, can’t bear to fail, has very high expectations for self, more comfortable with people who are older or younger.

There you have it. Now you can interrupt all you want about how you’re an exception to the rules.