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Why Firstborn Children Love to Tell You What to Do

The data shows firstborns are more likely to become U.S. presidents, CEOs, surgeons and MBAs than later-born siblings. One could argue whether overachievement is a positive outcome or not. Studies indicate while firstborns are more likely to be dutiful type A’s, their younger siblings are better collaborators and more popular.

Like all studies and generalizations, there are widespread variances. But anyone who is, or has an oldest sibling, knows firstborns usually assume they should be in charge. All the time.

The social science theory on overachieving eldests is the firstborn is the apple of the parents’ eye, and thereby receives more attention and resources than younger sibs. They overachieve because they were taught to read earlier, their parents paid more attention to their schooling, the whole family attended their sporting events, etc.

As an eldest myself I think that’s dressing things up a bit. My experience tells me, we firstborns aren’t overbearing because we were doted on, we’re bossy because we had no other choice.

An experience with my own children when they were young was like a playback of my childhood. One evening many years ago, I came in the door from work to find my older  daughter, then age 9, sitting at the table, head down, quietly doing her homework. Meanwhile her younger sister, age 4, had covered herself, the carpet and an entire sofa in purple marker.

My oldest child had not been charged with watching her sibling.Yet as the youngest stood there proudly exhibiting her magic marker handiwork, instead of being angry with the four-year-old, I turned to my oldest in a fury, saying, “Why are you just sitting there studying while your sister is ruining the sofa?”

It was an epiphany. My default assumption was: the oldest is in charge. I was holding her responsible for her younger sibling’s behavior, no matter what the circumstance.

Is it any wonder that as an eldest child myself I still feel compelled to instruct my grown siblings on how to run their lives, businesses and homes? As the oldest of four, it was no small feat to keep those three little miscreants from ruining the house when mom and dad were gone. Ever since they showed up on the scene, I’ve been programmed to believe I’m responsible for their behavior. Of course my fellow oldest siblings gravitate to management roles. Our childhoods were one big long training program in responsibility.  We show up at college with a full decade of keeping people in line already under our belt.

Backstory on the great magic marker caper of years past, when I told my younger brother about my revelation, and he responded, “Oh my gosh, I am doing the exact same thing with my kids.” It’s natural to assume the oldest is in charge, but not always helpful.

Post magic marker story, I tried to even things out more with my own kids. I tried to expect more of the youngest and not assume the oldest would always be the responsible one. I did better, but not by a big margin.

In the end, our childhoods shape us, but they don’t have to define us. If you’re an oldest, it may be time for you to step back and let others lead. And if you’re a younger sibling, unless you’ve marched a mile in the responsibility-laden loafers of an over-exhausted eldest, you’ll never understand the burden of our birth order. You youngsters don’t appreciate how good you have it.

  • Elizabeth McLeod

    Great article!