Birth order is a subject that has continued to attract significant interest from people across different spheres, especially in the recent past.
Employers want to understand how our childhood prepares us for the work place, psychoanalysts are interested in how birth order prepares us for the different stages of life and how we navigate various situations in life and even ‘love doctors’ point to a link between who is best to get paired with, romantically, based on birth order.
A report titled: Born to Lead? The Effect of Birth Order on Non-Cognitive Abilities authored by Sandra E. Black, Erik Grönqvist and Björn Öckert, and published in the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge points to certain key indicators that affect the individual based on the family position that they occupy.
They noted that firstborn children are advantaged on non-cognitive dimensions capturing emotional stability, persistence, social outgoingness, willingness to assume responsibility and ability to take initiative. Third-born children on the other hand have non-cognitive abilities that are 0.2 standard deviations below first-born children. Importantly, the report also demonstrates that occupational sorting is systematically related to birth order.
But like any debate, there are always two sides. In their research paper: ‘Examining the effects of birth order on personality’, Julia Rohrer, Boris Egloff and Stefan Schmukle argue that there is potentially no significant correlation between personality and birth order.
Further, they note that the differences parents see in their children as relating to a child’s position in the family may be more an effect of age than anything else. A younger sibling may become more conscientious with time, or as conscientious and reliable as an older brother or sister who is the firstborn.
Research facts aside, pop culture has also taken interest on birth order. On social media, memes and jokes abound about the effects of birth order and how that moulds individuals.
This week on MY NETWORK, we seek to find out if this birth order debate and researches are myths or if at all, there are truths especially in our immediate contexts.
Stephen Potas, 19
Student, African Nazarene University
Stephen says that he was babied for the longest time in his family. His siblings always had the responsibility of looking out for him, something that has not changed to date.
“My older siblings took on responsibilities much earlier than I did. For example, my first attempt at cooking was when I was in form two. But my big brother tells me that he started cooking when he was in class six,” he says.
And although he is 19 years old now, he feels that his older siblings still treat him like a child.
“They tend to underestimate my abilities. So when I do something like cooking, they are excessively surprised that I can actually do that. One of my sisters was surprised when I started growing beards, it seemed unsettling to her because it was against the notion of me being a kid that she is so firmly still holding on to,” he quips.
Well, it is not always that this kind of reaction from his older siblings annoys him, in a sort of weird way, being treated like a kid makes him feel cool.
And while he still does not know how his birth order will play out in his professional life because he is yet to start working, the influence of his older siblings is already very palpable in his life.
“The games that I played in high school were heavily influenced by the choices of my sisters, and how I dress is also largely courtesy of my fashionista sister. I played basketball in high school because three of my sisters played basketball in high school. I also write articles and attempt spoken word because these are things my older siblings do,” he notes.
Stephen says that older siblings have a big role to play in the way that younger siblings, especially lastborns, turn out to be. If the age gap is significant, they just look at what the older ones are doing and imitate.
“Being a lastborn also means that I am used to having other people at the steering wheel and taking charge is not one of my strong quality. I am totally laidback and as long as something does not affect me directly, I am unlikely to pay attention to it,” he says.
Wilson Otiato, 26
Wilson agrees that the research into the birth order narrative is important as some of the things that we observe on a daily basis are neatly tied to the “birth order syndrome” and investigating this might not be a bad idea.
“The research on how birth order affects us socially and professionally is important. It is something that we probably make jokes about, especially when referring to behavioural differences between firstborns and lastborns. For example, the way firstborns behave, like deputy parents, is an indicator of how they are willing to take up responsibilities and take care of younger siblings.
"On the other hand, lastborns tend to behave in an entitled manner. Even in an office setting, we tend to entrust the younger, often times entry-level employees, with lighter duties and christen them nicknames such as office baby, lastborn, mtoto wa ofisi and the likes. Beyond the jokes, I think it is important that such research delves deeper to provide new insight to help us understand the role birth order plays in shaping us,” he says.
Wilson was, however, the youngest child of the family, for eight years, before his younger sister was born so he had some unlearning to do – because he had some lastborn qualities already growing in him. His elder brother is just three years older than him so growing up, the expectations placed on them were quite similar.
“My brother and I were raised in a village setting, by our grandparents. The expectations placed on us, because of our small age difference, were the same: grow up and be the men of the home. We were often entrusted to do the same tasks, equally. But despite all that, my brother was still more responsible, initiative-driven, effective and more involved in ‘manly chores’ than I was. I was a bit laid back and averse to physical activities, possibly a result of the fact that I knew there was already someone taking charge. I spent most of my time reading or watching TV with my grandpa,” he says.
Being a middle child also taught Wilson to be the pacifier.
“I used to have a lot of squabbles with both my big brother and kid sister – something that I realised did not happen between them. So this made me work around developing traits such as being crafty, tactful and just a funny person to get through the squabbles. And I find myself applying this character even at work – I am the cool, calm, collected fellow who tends to see things from both sides,” he says.
Growing up as a middle child swings both ways, he says, so is being the firstborn or lastborn. What is important in becoming a wholesome individual is exposure, willingness to learn and healthy interactions with your siblings during the formative years.
Josephine Lukote, 25
Josephine has two younger brothers. “I have always been responsible for them. From as early as when I was in class three, my parents reminded me to look out for my brother – hold his hand when walking on the road, ensure that he packed everything he needed for school and looked out for him when he lost items such as pens while in school. So being in charge, being relied on and also just being the responsible one is something that I have grown up doing,” she says.
And because growing up everything revolved around ensuring that her kid brothers were fine, she finds that even today, when her kid brothers are adults, she still takes care of them and puts them first.
Growing up, she was also regarded as a motivator and as a role model; and because of this, the greatest advantage to being a firstborn, for her, has been learning to always be responsible and take care of matters without being prompted.
“I am the one who is not expected to be broke. My youngest brother for example, will call me first before calling my parents, when he needs something.
Sometimes I am not able to help him but that just gives me the urge to work harder and have the money to provide for them when they reach out to me,” she says.
These traits reflect in her academic work as well as professionally because she had to be self-driven in school, and this especially hit her when she joined university.
“I realised that I had no other way, except working hard because I had responsibilities. This is unlike for my brothers’ case who have to work hard, yes, but this is mostly tied to their individual successes,” she says.
Inevitably, she tends to put other people’s needs before her own. “At my workplace, I know from experience that people need to be guided and understood. I am therefore very approachable and like to think that I am a favourite teacher,” she says.
It gets deeper.
“I am constantly aware that in the absence of my parents, I will be expected to take charge of things. This makes me feel very mature but also keeps me continually thinking about my younger brothers,” she says.
Josephine agrees that she can come across as bossy in relationships because she is used to being in charge. “I once dated a man who was also a firstborn but we broke up because we were constantly fighting about being in control. At the time, I did not realise that this was the issue,” she says.
Since then, she has to remind herself to take the back seat in certain situations, especially when she is dealing with older people.
Lorna Kithinji, 21
An Only Child
Lorna reads a lot of stereotyping in the birth order research findings because while there might be some truths in them, her argument is that, the reality might not be the same for everyone.
“Being an only child is always perceived as being ‘spoilt’ but this is not necessarily true. In my case, I did not have everything that I wanted, I was not taken to all the places that I wanted to go and the treats I received were at my parents’ discretion, not my choice,” she says.
Growing up as an only child was never an issue for Lorna until she reached teenage and realised that her friends always had sisters and brothers to talk about during conversations.
But that is not to say that she emerged completely untouched by the ‘only-child’ effect.
“My parents treated me in a very normal way but they were very strict and over-protective. I had a number of restrictions that made me a loner at some point because I did not go out to play with the other kids in my neighbourhood. This affected my social life for some time,” she says.
While she had challenges growing up as an only child, she views this as more of the way her parents raised her than a result of being a middle child. But maybe the way her parents raised her was informed by the fact that she is an only child.
“The only true trait that I think I developed as a result of being an only child is being a loner, I was not allowed to interact with my age-mates as much as I wanted to so I learnt early that I had just me,” she says.
And thanks to being an only child, Lorna today is her own champion – she looks after herself, enjoys her own company, and hardly relies on other people to get things done.
“I grew up with a lot of personal space. So even today, I need a lot of that. I also do not feel the need to have someone or people besides me, for me to accomplish something. I am the same socially and sometime I can come across as very anti-social,” she says.
For Lorna, growing up as an only child had its advantages such as receiving undivided attention and love from her parents. There was also no competition or other siblings to be compared with so this made everything smooth; and her self-esteem remains quite high. Also, all the resources and privileges available at home were not split.
“I had a lot of people listening to me, even close relatives did not have the option of choosing a favourite,” she says.
Nyokabi Kimari, 25
Customer Service Representative
Nyokabi says that growing up, she felt that a lot was invested in her – more attention and sacrifice. She got whatever she asked for, from her parents.
“As an adult now, and in retrospect, I tend to think that a lot was invested in me so that I can help with my younger siblings. That in itself means that I am constantly thinking about them, and just generally working to be someone that they can draw encouragement from,” she says.
And because of this realisation, she has grown to be a very proactive person – she senses when help is needed and many times, she steps in to help.
“I find that if there is a lot of traffic at other people’s desks at work, I naturally step in and help them. And while I enjoy working in a team, I can easily come across as pushy, a trait that I attribute to having this ‘saviour’ syndrome; believing that I know what is best for everyone, forgetting that they are not my younger siblings and I am not in charge of them,” she says.
And perhaps because of her nature of naturally drawing people in and wanting to help, she finds that a lot of people, in her circle of friends, come to her for advice on various issues.
“Maybe this is because I am just good at what I do but I think my ability to make people feel comfortable has a big role to play in it,” she says.
“I also think that because of the priority that I was given when growing up – the schools I was taken to and just being provided for with everything that I needed, I understand what it means to have other people inconvenienced for my sake, so I also go out of my way for other people,” she says.