Saturday, June 05, 2004

birth order

A recent email exchange with the Maximum Leader got me thinking about birth order. Most of what I know about birth order psychology comes from Kevin Leman's pop-psych The Birth Order Book. Much of what he says makes sense, but some of it sounds a bit like astrology.

Being a firstborn, I tended to concentrate on what Leman had to say about firstborns and the so-called "lonely onlies." Leman's one-word summation of the driving force behind firstborns' behavior is "perfectionism." This immediately splits off into two subtypes, the perfectionist and the "discouraged" or "defeated" perfectionist. The first type is pretty much self-explanatory: we've all seen perfectionists at work, and we know that perfectionism comes in many forms; it's not usually about doing everything perfectly, but about being perfectionistic in certain areas.

The discouraged perfectionist is still a prisoner of his/her perfectionism, but is in a state of constant revolt against it. A firstborn who's a directionless slob is a defeated perfectionist who feels great guilt about being a directionless slob, and can't shake the feeling that he should be doing something better with his life.

I take some issue with Leman's typology because just about everyone can be fitted into either of these types. If you're a firstborn, then, there's no escaping being a perfectionist or a discouraged perfectionist. Leman wins either way when he analyzes you: if you're a success, you've shown your perfectionist colors. If you're not, well, you're a discouraged perfectionist. Leman also notes that, statistically, firstborns are the ones most likely to end up on the analyst's couch (a claim that's probably true).

Firstborns can be pretty fucked-up, neurotic people, saddled with weird hangups that middle children and lastborns have trouble understanding (just ask my little brothers about how antsy I can be re: neatness and, on occasion, punctuality). Leman's probably on solid ground to argue that we firstborns' first role models are our parents; I think this is factually true (unless we're talking about absentee parents). Having adults both as your initial god-figure and later role model means you probably end up viewing life as, basically, serious business, even if you also possess an innate sense of fun. Most adults, especially parents, tend to lecture; this speech pattern gets passed on to firstborns, who also tend to lecture (which is what I'm doing now). I'd bet that Drs. Keith Burgess-Jackson and William Vallicella are firstborns. The Maximum Leader's a firstborn, as is my buddy the Air Marshal, and my buddy Dr. Steve.

Many firstborns, coming from the adult-as-role-model background, are inculcated to view the universe in a principle-oriented fashion. They're more likely to have clear notions of right and wrong, even if they themselves violate those notions. They're also more likely to impart their notions of right and wrong to others (hell, I wrote an essay on this blog titled "right and wrong"). Firstborns are the ones most likely to take an essay like this one-- about birth order-- seriously; whether they agree or disagree with it, they won't be easily dismissive of it.

Leman notes that middle children (whom he defines as anyone not a firstborn or lastborn) develop a greater sense of privacy and are quick to learn the arts of mediation and compromise. Lastborns tend to be showoffs (big surprise here), and are also forgetful, probably because they're used to having the entire family take care of them. They're often the slowest to learn a sense of responsibility.

A firstborn male child with an older sister is still, in many respects, a firstborn male child despite not being a firstborn sibling. Like Deborah Tannen, Leman suggests this is because gender identity is as much "cultural" (i.e., constructed) as it is biological. Male culture and biology don't "translate" directly from big sisters to little brothers.

Only children are, according to Leman, firstborns times ten. They're the ones most likely to be driven by an achievement neurosis, to hold themselves (and possibly others) to extremely high standards, and to possess the largest number of hangups. I don't know enough only children to say how true this claim is, but Leman's had a bunch of firstborns and "lonely onlies" on his couch, so maybe he knows what he's talking about. Maybe.

One of the things I'd note about firstborns is that we often seem to love unequal relationships. In my own circle of friends, this means (at least partially) that I excel at things my other friends don't. In my inner circle of Maximum Leader, Air Marshal, and Dr. Steve, I'm the "religion/art/philo/language guy." Mike the Maximum Leader is primarily "history/politics/philo/art." Dave the Air Marshal is largely "science/history/politics/religion." Steve is the "literature/art/culture/language" guy.

Inequality in relationships can also affect what age groups we firstborns hang out with outside our inner circle. I knew one 20-something woman at CUA (quite the cutie) whose father was in his 80s. She liked to hang around profs who were in their 60s or older. Nothing naughty-- purely neutral in the romantic area-- but definitely where she felt most comfortable, socially speaking. Being with people her own age sometimes made her a bit nervous, especially if they were of the opposite sex (grrrrrr). We all seemed too callow, I guess.

Leman suggests what other psychologists suggest: in terms of romantic compatibility, the old "opposites attract" rule is the best one to go by. The complementarity between a lastborn and a firstborn creates a situation with far less Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress"-- and yes, JK Rowling's Durmstrang School is a play on this phrase). Such couples are less likely to butt heads all the time.

Firstborns are picky-- critical and self-critical. Some people can take this; many can't. My own brothers get routinely tired me of and my picayunish nature. David in particular has growled, "Don't try to argue about this" to me on more than one occasion, because he's not about to put up with my legalistic bullshit.

But how much water does birth order psychology really hold? There are plenty of skeptics out there (here, for instance). I personally think there's something to the psychology, but I don't completely subscribe to it. The Air Marshal poo-poos the "opposites attract" folk wisdom in favor of an even older wisdom: "Go with what works"-- spoken like a true, pragmatic engineer.

Both the Maximum Leader and the Air Marshal have new kiddies on the way-- due any time, in fact. I wish them both luck as they expand their fatherly horizons; parenting ain't easy, and unlike teaching, it's 24/7. For the rest of us firstborns, all I can say is, Ave Maria...


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