A number of family variables influence the child's perception of the birth order and create a different psychological order from the ordinal position. These variables influence how the child will evaluate the birth order position and decide whether that birth order is the best or the worst position in the family; for example, a first born may evaluate the heavy responsibilities expected of the oldest child and decide that it is easier to be lazy than assume leadership. A middle child may see that the leadership demonstrated by the oldest child is inferior and decide to leapfrog into a role as the leader of the group. Each child will evaluate his or her birth-order position in relation to the other siblings and decide on a pattern of behavior to enable that child to become unique in the family structure.
Corsini and Manaster (1982) maintain that the important factor relative to birth order and personality development is the child's perception of the role to be played and its demands and expectations. Age spacing and the other variables subsequently listed may influence such perceptions, but in the final analysis, the child is responsible for these perceptions.
In the study of birth order, the sex of the child is an important variable because each child searches to establish his or her sex-role identity by finding a role model in the family. Parents have different sex-role expectations for each child and reinforce or reward the child's behaviors in accordance with their expectations.
The structure of the family is important to consider when examining the various influences on the child. The family structure includes a description of the sex of each child and the sequence of birth of each child. Afamily of four children could have a birth order and sequence combination to form sixteen different family structures. Afamily of four boys (boy, boy, boy, boy) is very different from a family of four girls (girl, girl, girl, girl). Another family of four children (girl, boy, girl, boy) is quite different from another family of four children (girl, girl, boy, boy). The sequence of birth and the gender of each child will influence how siblings are likely to group and interact.
The age separation between siblings is another important consideration in the development of personality. Closely spaced children have a strong influence on each other because they are likely to play together extensively. Children who are born several years apart have less influence on each other than those who are closely spaced. Two or more families can exist within the family unit; when children are born (at least) five years apart, the family can be considered to have a second generation of children within the same family unit.
Parents hold different expectations for each child based on the sex, age, and size of the child. A first-born daughter is often required to assume responsibilities and act as the "Junior Mom" by supervising the younger siblings. Similarly, a first-born son is often expected to be the "Junior Dad" to the younger siblings. Alast-born child is recognized as the "baby" and may utilize learned helplessness to keep other people busy with his or her problems. Parents may pamper their youngest child and give it many privileges that the older siblings did not receive.
Parents may choose a favorite child based on their own birth order. A last-born parent may identify with the lastborn child and say, "I know what that child is going through; I know what it feels like to be picked on by those older kids." When one parent and a child establish a strong bond, the remaining children will seek other role models.
How parents interact with the child is often influenced by the age of the parents. Teenage parents are very energetic and are likely to play with the child, whereas parents in their late 30s are more likely to be academic and will read to the child. Mature parents provide their first-born child a different socioeconomic environment than teenage parents.
A family with multiple births (twins, triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets) will have special circumstances because of their shared environment. Multiple-birth siblings often bond closely and develop private language or symbols for communication. Identical twins experience similar family environments and develop common traits, yet they find subtle ways to differentiate themselves.
A child who requires special care, for example, a child with a disability, will alter the expectations for each member of the family. Each family member will have some role in the care of this child.
Any conditions that may lead the parents to give special consideration or protection to a child may have an influence on the family environment. A parent who has several miscarriages before the successful birth of a child may become an overprotective parent. The death of a sibling during childhood will have a profound effect on each of the surviving family members.
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