My Brother's Keeper?

A loyal reader of JordanCornblog (thanks DSabler) has suggested that it would be fun and  interesting to start “talking” about sibling relations and birth order here.  (Thanks, I think!)  As a firstborn (and a slightly defensive one at that), this is something that I have pondered at some length.  (And at the risk of stating the obvious, I should add that, being the first born, I’ve had a few more years to ponder this than my sibs have!)

While on the surface it would seem that siblings are all born into the same birthfamily, it’s my belief that that actually is not the case at all.  Each of us is born into a family that is significantly different, depending on its configuration when we arrive.  Even our memories of shared events will differ, depending on our birth order and the way(s) that it affects our perspective, our expectations, our understanding of life.  

One of the most eye-opening books I’ve read on the subject is Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel.  About this book, the NY Times Book Review said:  Frank J. Sulloway envisions families as ecosystems in which siblings compete for parental favor by occupying specialized niches.  Combing through thousands of biographies in politics, science, and religion, he demonstrates that firstborn children are more likely to identify with authority whereas their younger siblings are predisposed to rise against it. Family dynamics, Sulloway concludes, is a primary engine of historical change.

That whole family-as-ecosystem idea really resonates for me.  As Sulloway describes it, life in families, as in any system, is about survival.  Within the family system, there are niches which are shaped by the values of the family, its cultural heritage, its particular dysfunctions, etc.  The firstborn arrives in a family where all of the niches for the offspring are up for grabs and so, has a wider range of choices than later-arriving family members will.  The second-born has the next widest range of choices, and so on.

So based on that, you’d think that the first-born has all the advantages.  And in some ways, that is correct.  However, what I see as a potential drawback (depending on the family) is that the firstborn is also the most affected by the “parental unit.”  While he or she may have a wider range of choices, he or she may also experience the most pressure to succeed, conform, etc.  So it’s a mixed bag for sure.

As a first born I was very disappointed to read that, as a rule, we tend to be conformist, conservative, and, if successful, we’re successful in the more mundane, banker-like ways.  Those coming later in the birth order tend to be creative, artistic, rebellious, revolutionary … all the good stuff!  On the other hand, I was heartened to learn that depending on the dysfunction in a family, the tendencies posited by Mr. Sulloway may not occur.  (Let’s hear it for dysfunction!)

And of course there are additional layers of complexity to consider with families of choice (as with adoption) and with blended famillies.  And what of only children?  One would expect that they’d be more like firstborn’s, I guess.  They have a wide range of niche-choices … but depending on their families, may also have inordinate amounts of pressure and parental control, meddling, expectations, etc.  And none of this mitigates (to my mind) elements of chance, of choice … and perhaps of temperament … but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

So do eldest children tend to be a tad controlling?  Do we sometimes behave like know-it-all’s?  Did it seem like Mom and/or Dad sometimes liked us best?  Probably so.  But did we absorb a lot of the parental energy and leave you younger ones free to make more noise and stay out later and ride your bikes further?  You betcha! 

So what do you think of that, HollyCornblog?

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4 Responses to My Brother's Keeper?

  1. JordanCornblog says:

    I may have looked like an exception … but peel a few layers down and there are still some disquieting similarities. As for Hillary … I don’t know for a fact, but would bet that you’re correct. Put together Wellesley and Republican … and that sounds like a quintessential firstborn girl to me! And isn’t her brother pretty much of a ne’er-do-well second-born? πŸ˜‰


  2. CB says:

    Actually, from my limited observations of you growing up, you were the exception to the first-born girl syndrome.
    That said, isn’t Hillary a first-born girl?


  3. JordanCornblog says:

    Ouch! Guess that explains my aversion to maple syrup!


  4. CB says:

    A friend of mine from a large family whose first-born is a notorious, renegade newspaper publisher in California says her mother used to always say, “Children are like waffles. The first one should be thrown away.”


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