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Chris Bolin/© 2010

QUESTION

Is there any truth to the notion that your birth order in your family determines your personality? And if so, what generalizations can be made?

ANSWER

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Birth order, and its relationship to personality, has been the subject of much research and debate. Does a relationship exist? In short, yes. However, birth order only accounts for approximately 5 per cent of personality characteristics.

Personality is influenced by many factors, including birth order, gender, environment, genetics, number and spacing of siblings, family relationships, parenting styles, life circumstances, education and finances, just to name a few.

We are all curious about why we are the way we are, and what it would be like to be the eldest, middle or youngest child in our family.

Being the firstborn in any household may necessitate a certain degree of responsibility for younger siblings, but also affords more opportunity for leadership and control. These situations may be great learning opportunities for building confidence, maturity, leadership, planning abilities, becoming achievement-driven, and being somewhat traditional. On the flip side, firstborns are often described as bossy, spoiled and lonely.

At the other end of the spectrum is the youngest child, who is often depicted as the "baby" of the family. Whether this is an enviable position may largely depend on the number of older siblings and if the family's resources have improved or dwindled since the child was born.

Research suggests that the youngest of the family tends to be humorous, a risk-taker, happier and friendlier, but more immature, attention-seeking and sensitive than his or her older siblings.

The middle child is in a somewhat precarious position - between the dominating older sibling and the often-pampered youngest sibling. Given that the middle child is positioned between the extremes, he or she may become a negotiator who is friendly, sociable and compliant. However, middle children can often be more rebellious than their siblings, feeling the need to garner some of the spotlight. As a result, middle children will often strive to do things that are unconventional.

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And what about the only child? Contrary to the popular belief that only children are overindulged, research has demonstrated that these individuals tend to display numerous firstborn characteristics. They are likely to be achievement-oriented, mature and, given that they are the only focus of parents' attention, tend to conform to parental wishes.

Over all, it is important to avoid letting the power of suggestion turn these generalizations into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keep in mind that while birth order may play a role in personality, it is a relatively small role. There are many other factors that determine who we are and how we will conduct ourselves in life.

The best advice is to be your unique self. Don't fall into the trap of acting the way people expect you to be, based on a single factor.

Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz is a psychologist in the anxiety disorders program and project investigator at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

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