When Daniel Eckstein was growing up, he was literally the “all-American boy.”
In high school, he was a star athlete who went on to become an All-American defensive back and then was drafted by Vince Lombardi, playing professional football with the Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins and also in Canada.
He was also the first born, and such “high” achievements are common among first children, Eckstein said.
“The first 16 astronauts were either first born or eldest males,” Eckstein said. “Also, the highest percentage in ‘Who’s Who.’ The highest number of U.S. presidents.”
Eckstein, an associate professor of counseling at SHSU, is an expert on birth order and its effect on personality.
Though eight years old, his study of 151 empirically-based articles on statistically significant birth-order differences remains in the top 10 most researched articles from “The Journal of Individual Psychology.” He also lectures extensively on the topic, appearing on a BBC program and, recently, on the Sirius Radio program Doctor Radio.
In the study, Eckstein looked at 151 articles with significant differences in the findings, as related to birth order and its impact on personality, and singled out the most common attributes shared for the firstborn and only, middle and youngest children.
“Birth order is very intriguing. It’s a very controversial part of literature. In personality journals, you’ll see debate after debate whether it is really a factor or not,” he said.
“One can say it doesn’t exist, and yet I built a pretty strong case that says something is happening. My article is one of the seminal ones, to be quite candid.”
Along with being the “highest achievers,” first-born children tend to have the highest IQs, have the greatest academic success and be highly motivated.
“First borns typically interject or buy into the values of the parents. First borns are more conservative, but they are very much into achieving and doing and producing,” Eckstein said. “They are your typical type-A personalities.
“The pressures on the first born are incredible, so you have a lot more stress-related stuff, you have a lot more breakdowns and you have a lot more parental expectation,” he said.
Among the most-commonly occurring characteristics for middle children are having the fewest “acting out” problems, being more sociable and having the greatest feelings of not belonging.
“The middle child was the youngest child for a period of time. We find that middle children typically feel more unfairness,” Eckstein said. “They feel squeezed and are more focused on injustices (in comparing themselves with siblings).”
Youngest children tend to be overrepresented in having psychiatric disorders, especially if from small families, and are typically empathetic, as well as more likely to have a substance abuse problem.
“Parents, in general, report that their youngest are ‘a joy to be around,"’ Eckstein said. “They’re a joy to be around because it’s almost like the parents were worn out by parenting, so they say something like, ‘I wonder what they’d be like if I just let them grow up.’
“Unlike the first born, who inherited all the expectations, youngest children typically have better relationships with their parents because their parents enjoy them,” he said.
“Only” children tend to have the most need for achievement, are the highest achievers except for oldest children (though they are the oldest child) and are most likely to go to college.
“It’s true that ‘only’ children don’t grow up learning the give and take of siblings,” Eckstein said. “With siblings, you grow up in competitive and collaborative environment and every one of us somehow has to find our own way in all of that.
“The benefit is that when an ‘only’ child speaks, a parent listens. A seventh child of nine is lucky to be heard,” he said. “With an ‘only’ child, there are a lot more financial resources, a lot more poured into them. You’ll typically find they are able to go to a better school.”
While Eckstein says he often finds these kinds of generalizations carry over when counseling families, it’s important to remember “one size does not fit all” and that other factors can come into play that would invalidate the research.
"The problem with classic birth order research is that we can limit ourselves to ordinal or chronological birth order,” he said. “A fifth born child of seven would be labeled as a fifth born; however, there is another concept of psychological birth order, which has to do with spacing and gender.
“Children at various places in the birth order do have some characteristics that we can make some guesses on,” he said. “It’s important to say that birth order is not to typecast someone.”
While birth order is an important variable, other factors such as early recollection can also influence the shaping of one’s personality. After his discussion on birth order on Sirius’ Doctor Radio, Eckstein was invited back to the program to discuss that component.
“Birth order is one variable, it’s an important variable,” he said. “But then, out of all of that, people make their decisions about the way things are, and that’s where early memories are great clues to the ‘and therefore.’”
Eckstein uses Alfred Adler, one of the three early and major personality theorists, as an example of how early recollection comes into play.
“Adler was overshadowed by the incredible accomplishments of the ‘first born’ Sigmund Freud. The ultimate irony is that in real life, Adler was a second born and his older brother’s name was Sigmund.
“So here, we have a whole model: Alfred Adler’s early recollections are filled with ‘Sigmund is my mother’s favorite’—Alfred Adler had rickets and he was ill and his older brother was an athlete—and then here’s this whole theory of birth order coming from a man who in his whole life was obsessed with Sigmund.”
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