Nanny in NYC

A modern day Mary Poppins

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

How I Screwed Up my Sisters or How Sam's Bound to Screw Up Luke

Like one of my favorite journalists,'s senior editor Emily Bazelon, I am endlessly fascinated by birth order in families and how it affects behavior and personality (as I mentioned last week). Last week Emily wrote a piece on Slate about a few recent studies that delve into the effects of birth order on children. Prior to reading this article I had thought in ways similar to Ms Bazelon:
Birth order is one of my favorite explanations for behavior. It's the rationale for why I'm bossy (I'm an oldest) and for why my older son Eli tends to be assertive and rule-conscious while my younger son Simon veers toward mischievous. Older children are supposed to be more aggressive and domineering, younger children more rebellious.
But apparently, the new findings suggest that outside of the family environment, these birth order personality tags fade away.
In one study, researchers watched siblings play and observed how the older ones run the show, "often by playing aggressively," as Judith Rich Harris recounts in her new book No Two Alike. Then they watched the same children playing with peers. The older siblings didn't dominate their peers more, and the younger siblings didn't dominate less. Similarly, studies of the effect of birth order on test scores, education, and earnings have collectively failed to account for differences in children's achievements.
So, sadly, both Emily and I seem to have been duped by yet another misconception of common wisdom.

But--that is not to say that birth order accounts for nothing at all, in fact, quite the opposite. According to the results of these studies, younger siblings are considerably more prone to "risky behavior" such as drug and alcohol use/abuse, playing with guns, premature sex, and crime. Why? There are two theories. First,
older siblings make their mark by introducing their younger sidekicks to smoking, drugs, sex, and guns. Forget about older siblings as positive role models. What's far more prevalent, apparently, is premature exposure--pointing out the best spot to sneak a cigarette or buy beer underage.
Then, of course, there are Mom & Dad (you really didn't think you'd get out of this without being blamed for something, did you).
Parents may also contribute to younger sibling delinquency, wittingly or unwittingly, by cracking down on firstborns but running out of the energy to do so when the later-borns hit their teens.
As an oldest child (who was an absolutely perfect example for her younger siblings, mind you!) I think that the latter explanation is much more to blame (that is, until I have my own children, then I reserve the right to change my mind).

Luckily, this phenomena is only observable in early life. By around the age of 30 older and younger children are pretty much indistinguishable from one another in the realm of risk behavior. The major exception to this, however, is cigarette smoking, which speaks not to any family influence, but rather to the seriously addictive nature of nicotine.

When all is said and done, however, I simply don't buy it. Of course the anecdotal evidence I've gleaned in my short life wouldn't stand up to these scientific studies, but Iconsistentlyy observe character traits in people thatcorrespondd to their place in the family. Is it all in my head? Perhaps, and I guess I can handle that. In some ways even if it's completely disproved, I predict we will still hold onto the concept. In a way similar to how some of my friends insist on calling themselves "left brained" or "right brained" despite the fact that the idea that the two hemispheress of the brain play different roles in thought was disproven long before they were born, I believe we will go on applying these misconceptions to our daily lives. Things that help us order and classify people in simple ways are soooo hard to let go of.


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