The sun is setting against the Verdugo Hills in Burbank, Calif., as Tracy Repchuk and her husband, Dave, head toward the door to finally go see that new movie. Though the firstborn is generally the child in charge when parents go out, Tracy asks her second child, Celeste, to take charge because she is just as capable and perhaps more in need of learning how to take on responsibility.
“Take dinner out of the oven in 10 minutes,” she reminds Celeste before kissing the children goodbye.
A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that firstborns may be more motivated to learn, whereas secondborns may be more motivated to win. While just one droplet in a vast pool of research revolving around the science of birth order, the study is among the most downloaded articles of the journal. That attention to this research raises the question about the fixation many have with the science of birth order and the validity behind it.
"A lot of focus has been placed on birth order, primarily because patterns are repeated from generation to generation," Repchuk told the Deseret News. "But I believe if each child is treated precisely as an individual, the traits of the individual will come to light."
Myth or science?
The validity of the science of birth order itself remains contentious, said Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas.
Most of the variants or factors that contribute to any particular outcome at any one time — such as socioeconomic status or health — are outside of birth order, said Falbo. "These are sorts of issues that have more direct connections to outcomes than whether you were second of three."
The study — which examined almost 400 students — found that birth order can be a lens through which first and secondborns see the world differently in ways that impact their motivation and likelihood of career and personal success, though the roles often can be reversed with patience and practice.
The findings emerge across and within families, Bernd Carette, an author of the study and psychologist in Belgium, told the Deseret News.
Today, personality tests are a "startling ubiquitous" part of American life, Annie Murphy Paul wrote in "The Cult of Personality."
From employee screening procedures to online dating advice, personality testing is a $400 million industry that is expanding by nearly 10 percent every year, accounting for nearly 17.5 million people per year, according to the Myers-Briggs test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
Why do we obsess over birth order?
"Personality tests all make the same promise: to reduce our complicated, contradictory, changeable selves to a tidy label," Paul said. "These tests claim to measure not what we know, but what we're like; not what we can do, but who we are."
Everyone is looking for their place in life and wondering where they fit in, Susan Newman, social psychologist in New Jersey, told the Deseret News. Personality tests and birth order books are just one more way for people to do so.
"Most tests have positive aspects, no matter what you check," Newman said. "It's ego-feeding."
For Falbo, it isn't difficult to understand the intrigue behind the science of birth order. The majority of people today have siblings and are aware of the influence of those they grew up with, Falbo said. People want to look at these tables, find themselves within the table and plot out the trajectory.
"It's like astrology," Falbo said. "You know your birth date, so you can figure out which fortune to read that day."
Bernd would say that while the appeal is clear, the findings are valid. "It's an appealing idea that birth order might influence your personality," Bernd said. "But everyone has a birth rank and everyone is influenced by that."
Back in Burbank, Repchuk, mother of those three children, said she believes birth order is a science formed of generations of patterns, rather than something inherent by birth.
Repchuk's children do not fit the stereotypical birth order roles, due to her cognizance of the dangers of enforcing such roles. She and her husband made a conscious effort when their children were young to treat them as if they'd come here for their own purpose and had their own personality, Repchuk said. "I think if there ever is a stereotypical onset, it is due to the parenting styles that have lasted for generations."
Repchuk and her husband have worked hard to avoid comparing their children to one another, asserting their own agenda upon their kids, or pushing them into specific hobbies.
"It's a logical thing. We are self-determined people. We want to be responsible for our own selves, we want to have control and power of choice," Repchuk said. "If you don't exercise both of those, you won't be able to reach a goal or move forward in life."
In a recent article published in Psychology Today, Newman wondered if parents are harassing their children by putting too much pressure on them with unsavory birth order labels that just won't go away.
It's easy to put people, including children, in boxes and pigeon-hole them, Newman told the Deseret News. "Those labels stick."
If parents see their children as individuals and work to treat them democratically, rather than viewing them as the oldest, youngest or middle child, the detriments associated with labeling children can cease to exist, Newman said.
Randi Abramowitz, a parenting teacher at an infant program in Santa Monica, Calif., and mother of three, doesn't discuss birth order in her classes. "I think that it predisposes parents to look at things in a certain way and form prejudices early on, due to the order they came in," Abramowitz said.
There are many factors — temperament, gender, age difference, parenting style — that influence who a child becomes and the place they take in the world, Abramowitz tells the parents in her class.
Parents must accept that you're not going to have five children who are all the same. Each is different, Abramowitz said. Taking a step back and looking at who your child is and appreciating that each child is an individual is pivotal to the child's growth and independence.
"After having merely acted as a facilitator in my children's process of self-discovery, I stand in awe at the effects," Repchuk said. "I'm in heaven with these accomplished individuals as they reach their teen years."
Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.
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