Friday, December 3, 2010

How to Survive Your Family During the Holidays: Understand Birth Order


It’s that time of the year when families are getting together. For some, these holiday get-togethers can be fraught with difficult family dynamics. But why? It’s just family, right? One answer is that when families get together everyone takes a step back in time and the pecking order—birth order—comes back into play. No matter that Joann is now a successful investment banker in New York City—she is still the baby sister to her older siblings, and is still treated the same way as she was when growing up. Birth order shapes your path throughout life, and these traits don’t change when you leave the nest, get a job, and have a family of your own. And when lots of family members get together, the personality traits come into play.

To understand them, here’s a quick primer on birth order and a way to understand your family’s dynamics this holiday season:

The Only Child

This child will go one of two ways: they may love having everyone around, something they missed as a child, or they will like solitude during the holidays and prefer keeping things low key. This birth order will be the most adult of the group—the go-to person if problems occur. Charles Schulz is a good example of an only child—he had a fascination with family and children all his life, as evidenced by his “Peanuts” comic strip.

The Firstborn

Similar to the only child, the firstborn is at the top of the family pecking order. These are the people who want to give orders and be in charge. One can get a mental picture of the firstborn’s approach by just imagining Hillary Clinton and Julia Child in the same kitchen—both of these firstborns would want to be in charge. If you are working with firstborns for the holiday dinner, one approach to keep holiday harmony might be to make the firstborns of the family responsible for different aspects of the gathering.

The Second Born

Don’t tell a second born what to do! The second born may still be acting out their sibling rivalry with the firstborn. The second borns may want to take the competition outside for some touch football. If the weather isn’t cooperating, any game where they can compete will do! If the second born is in charge of dinner, you can bet it will be as perfect as possible—the second child often tries hard to unseat the older sibling. Second-born Martha Stewart, home and entertainment perfection guru, is a good example of a second-born child.

The Third Born

These are the masters of relationships and will be the observers of the family in action, taking everything in. They make it their job to keep peace and keep everyone on an even keel. Laughing on the outside, you can bet they are feeling everything on the inside and won’t let it show. The third born will know just which family members should sit together at the holiday table. Third-born Barbara Bush, wife of one president and mother of another, is the perfect example of the all-knowing, all-feeling third born who doesn’t let her tender side show.  She is great at picking up vibes from people and can easily figure them out. 
The Fourth Born

They are ready to have some fun! As the true babies in the family, everyone takes care of them and they can be the grease to keep the family having fun and keep things from getting too serious. The holiday party won’t be at their house unless someone else is in charge. They prefer to sit at the little kids’ table, where they are right at home. Fourth-born Dolly Parton exhibits the playfulness of this birth order.

And Beyond

If you are from a large family, birth order starts over at the top for the children following the fourth child of the family. If you are a fifth born, you share the firstborn traits. If you are a sixth born, you share the second-born traits, and so on. But often the birth order traits are softened in these family members.

Some Variables

Birth order characteristics are not black and white and they can be influenced by many things—sibling deaths, divorce, blended families, and lengthy spacing between children, to name a few. For example, “double birth” family members are children spaced four years apart or more from their closet sibling. For instance, a third (and last) child born five years after the second born of the family would carry a Three/Only birth order. Double birth order children carry both characteristics of their orders, and in many cases the blending magnifies characteristics. If a two is stubborn, then a Two/Only is an immovable object!

For some holiday entertainment, have your family play the sibling birth order game:

·         List all of the family members and their ages:

                Anna 41, John 38, Sue 37, Becky 30

·         Identify the number of years between each successive sibling:

                Anna 3yr John 1yr Sue 7yr Becky

·         Assign birth orders:  Anna: #1 John: #2 Sue: #3 Becky: #4/0
 (In this example, Becky has a double birth order because there are more than four years                                              
   between her and her closet sibling.)

If you have a large group, give a name tag to each person identifying their birth order. It’s a great way to get the holiday dinner conversations going! Bon Appétit!