Is Birth Order A "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy"?

Middle kids rejoice — or despair: a child's actual birth order may matter a lot less than what parents think about that birth order.

In today's NY Times, Dr. Perri Klass tells the story of a family she treated. The oldest of the three children was very high-achieving. Klass writes,

She is the oldest, her mother would say, so she gets lots of attention, and she works very hard. When her younger sister turned out to be an equally good student, the proud mother explained that naturally she wanted to be just like her older sister.

Then a long-looked-for baby boy was born. When he was a toddler, I began to worry that his speech seemed a little slow in coming. His mother was perfectly calm about it. He is the only boy, she said, so he gets lots of attention, and he doesn't have to work very hard.

Klass uses this example to illustrate that "birth order can be used to explain every trait and its precise opposite." But that doesn't keep parents from making assumptions about their kids based on which one popped out of the womb first. Klass talked to Dr. Peter A. Gorski, who says, "Too many parents are haunted by experiences both good and bad that they identify with their birth order." They may then "classify their own children according to birth order [...] which in turn can lead to a sense of identification or even rejection and to 'self-fulfilling prophecies.'"

Last week we learned that parental perceptions may amplify gender differences — now it seems they may exaggerate, or even create, the influence of birth order as well. Of course, it's no surprise that how parents see their kids changes how those kids grow up, or that parents draw on their own good and bad memories. But what's the solution here? Should parents refrain from drawing on their own experiences at all, to avoid unduly influencing their kids?

Making the issue a lot more complicated is that kids, even babies, aren't just passive bags of influence. They're human beings, and they influence their parents right back. Not only that, but what they take from their upbringing may be totally different from what their parents think they are giving. My mom, for instance, is always shocked by the things I remember her saying (whether or not she really told me that "when you die, everything just goes black forever" is a big bone of contention). Klass quotes an old saying that "no two children grow up in the same family, because each sibling's experience is so different" — by that standard, parents don't really live in the same family as their children either.

So how can parents avoid making their assumptions about their kids into "self-fulfilling prophecies?" Obviously, it's a good idea not to underestimate children, or to treat them according to gender or birth-order stereotypes. But anyone who believes that parents' "prophecies" wholly dictate how kids turn out is giving parents a lot of credit. If that were true, the world would have a lot more Einsteins and a lot fewer assholes.

Birth Order: Fun To Debate, But How Important? [NYT]
Does Birth Order Matter? [NYT]

Earlier: Do Parents Create Gender Differences?