How Parental Birth Order Affects Parenting

How Parental Birth Order Affects Parenting

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Identifying with your child

A parent’s birth order powerfully impacts his relationship with his children. If a parent was the firstborn child, he may identify completely with his oldest.

He understands this child best because they have had many of the same experiences. The parent knows what it’s like to have younger siblings who are always taking your things and interfering with your play dates. He understands what his firstborn is going through when there is a new baby in the house.

As a result, the parent may be more supportive and affectionate with the older child. When there is a conflict with his younger sibling, the parent may be inclined to take the older child’s side. For instance, he might scream at the younger one for messing up his older sibling’s drawing, even though the older one started the battle by calling the younger one a baby.

If a second-born parent felt her older brother had more attention, she might spend more time with the younger one and have more of a friendship with him. She might get mad at the older child if he is too critical of the younger child, and always defend the youngest from his domineering older sibling in disputes.

Though it might sound ironic, sometimes the situation works in the reverse. The firstborn parent might remember how bossy she was towards her younger sister, and unconsciously decide to protect her younger one to make up for what she did. She may become enraged when her oldest won’t let the younger one play in a game he’s having with a friend. She also may be furious if the older one taunts his younger brother for not knowing how to read.

A second-born parent might get angry if his youngest draws on his older sister’s science project to get back at her because he remembers venting his anger the same way. He may also become enraged at his youngest if he acts too dependent or runs away from competition because these behaviors remind him of his own negative behaviors.

All of this often happens for the parent unconsciously. It is therefore very helpful for parents to think about their own early childhood birth order experiences, bring them into awareness and examine the motivations behind their behavior with each of their children. If the parent finds himself siding with one child all the time or rejecting another child constantly, he needs to determine why. If he can relate the cause to his own birth order experiences, he can step back and find more positive approaches.

Children don’t understand why you might be more affectionate with one sibling and harder on another. The more aware you are, the more even-handed you can be with your children. As a result, they will grow up feeling equally loved.