- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Christine Buchanan of Fairfax was determined that her three children would grow up free of all the conventional wisdoms and theories the child-raising experts touted.

“I was bound and determined when I was pregnant with Courtenay that Meredith would not feel pushed out,” Mrs. Buchanan says. “I was bound and determined to be equal to both. When Ryan was born, I was bound and determined that Courtenay would not feel like the middle child being left out.

“But in spite of my efforts, what I learned in the end is that people end up being who they’re meant to be and you cannot change what is.”

Unwittingly, Mrs. Buchanan found out the power of birth order theory, which says children’s personalities are determined largely by what order they were born in the family. Meredith, now 30, grew up with an independent, hard-driving spirit. Courtenay, 29, the middle child, grew up with a different personality, in many ways, than Meredith, preferring sports over music. Ryan, 26, the baby of the family, is social, outgoing, friendly and people-loving. All three are classic birth-order prototypes.

“I don’t think birth order is the be-all and end-all [to developing personality], but it does play a role,” Mrs. Buchanan says. “You can’t help it.”

Kevin Leman of Tucson, Ariz., and Meri Wallace of Brooklyn, N.Y., echo Mrs. Buchanan’s findings. They’ve written entire books on birth order and parenting and are convinced understanding and applying its principles can make any couple better parents.

That goes even for two only children who marry, and Mr. Leman considers that the worst combination possible.

Theory or fluff?

It should be stressed that birth order theory is just that a theory. A popular and fun one, perhaps, but still a theory. For every Mr. Leman or Ms. Wallace out there, there’s someone such as Dr. Alan Delamater, professor of pediatrics and a pediatrician and psychologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Dr. Delamater says birth order theory is only part of a much, much bigger equation and doesn’t account for personality development as much as other factors such as environment and parenting.

“When you put it all together, there are a number of influences on human behavior,” Dr. Delamater says. “It’s very complex.”

Toni Falbo, a University of Texas professor of educational psychology and sociology, seconds Dr. Delamater’s assessment.

“There are so many variables and interpretations of peoples’ lives that the birth order variable by itself isn’t very useful,” Ms. Falbo says. “People can identify with it, so they think it must be altogether true. It helps people explain a situation, and oftentimes it’s convenient, so the individual doesn’t have to accept personal blame for their problems. They can say, I was an only child, therefore I knew I wouldn’t be a good husband; I can’t change.’ ”

Mrs. Buchanan agrees with Dr. Delamater and Ms. Falbo. She says that other factors, like gender and age gaps between siblings, also play big roles in developing personality.

“Birth order plays a part, I think, but I more strongly feel that whoever people inherently are has a bigger influence on their personality and temperament,” she says.

While agreeing that other factors do play a role, Mr. Leman, a psychologist, family therapist and author of the recently released “The New Birth Order Book,” says he has studied couples and families for more than 20 years and says birth order is the biggest determining factor in a child’s personality development.

He notes in his book that 23 of America’s 41 presidents were first-born or “functional first-born,” meaning the first male child. So were 21 of the first 23 astronauts the United States sent into space (the other two were only children). A much greater proportion of first-born end up in professions such as science, medicine and law, occupations that require analytical skills and hard-driving personalities.

He also notes that an unusual number of comedians such as Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Drew Carey, Martin Short, Jim Carrey and Leslie Nielsen are babies of their families, “funny people who got away with murder as kids,” he says.

Mirror images

Kevin Slack of Ellicott City, Md., says he and his wife, Virginia, show some of the classic birth order signs of being the “baby” of the family. Mr. Slack has one older brother, and Mrs. Slack has an older brother and sister.

“We were both born clinging to our mothers, no doubt about it,” Mr. Slack says. “As a baby, I never had to take care of my little brother; I never had that responsibility dropped on me. Everything my brother did was always limited to what I was able to do.”

Now that the Slacks have their own 5-month-old boy, James, Mr. Slack says he and his wife are focused on showing him how much they love him.

“You see these kids go on shows like Jerry Springer,’ and they all say the same thing,” Mr. Slack says. “They never felt loved. My parents bought me this or that,’ but they don’t have any self-esteem. We’re focused on making sure [James] always feels loved even if he’s mad at us, no matter what he says or does. That’s the biggest thing.”

Birth order theorists would say that is a natural goal for two “baby of the family” parents like the Slacks, since “babies” frequently grow up in nurtured, almost spoiled, environments.

Mrs. Buchanan, a first-born child married to another first-born child, says she tried to raise all three of her children to “fulfill whatever their potential was as given to them by God,” and she didn’t consciously think at the time that she was living out her traditional first-born characteristics.

“I didn’t term it independent’ necessarily,” Mrs. Buchanan says. “When I had Meredith, I just wanted her to know she was an individual and a worthwhile human being, that she had a mind of her own and that she would be listened to.”

Butting heads

Birth order theorists such as Mr. Leman and Walter Toman, who wrote extensively about parenting styles in “Family Constellation,” say the most difficult parenting combinations are where both spouses come from the same birth order, such as two first-borns marrying.

Mrs. Buchanan says she and Mr. Buchanan, both first-borns, were lucky enough to agree on most major issues, but every so often they disagreed on finer points.

“Since Skip was in the military [as a pilot], I pretty much raised them myself,” Mrs. Buchanan says. “Skip went away to boarding school when he was 13, where it was all boys and all military, then he went to the Naval Academy, then into the Navy, where it was all men and all military. So he had a certain way of looking at things, obviously, and so did I. I had a softer side to things. Sometimes we butted heads, but for the most part, we got along OK.

“I think it’s tough for two first-borns like we are, because here are the rules, and then along comes a middle daughter or son and things can be more difficult for them because they see things differently.”

Eric and Debbie Didomenico of Centreville are two first-born children, and they admit there are times they feel they are driving their three children, Rachel, 12, Sarah, 11 and Nathan, 9, hard and wrestle with how much space to give them.

“First-borns are passionate about what they do,” Mrs. Didomenico says. “So when [first child] Rachel came along, we both wanted to be the perfect parents. I guess everybody does, and it’s just a matter of how you go about it.”

Parenthood came quickly for the Didomenicos, who had Rachel less than a year after they got married. Mr. Didomenico was an Air Force officer, and he says his wife was “spring-loaded to be a mom.” Mrs. Didomenico quit her teaching job and has been a stay-at-home mom ever since.

“We were both idealistic, and still are to an extent,” Mr. Didomenico says. “When we have a principle, we’re ready to stand by it. That’s what first-borns do, I guess.”

On the other hand, Sara Simmons of Arlington is the sixth of eight children, and her husband, Curt, is the oldest of three. They have seven children of their own, ranging from 18-year-old Jesse to 8-month-old twins, James and Victoria. She says their balance of personalities has helped them tremendously in their parenting.

“Curt’s the traditional first-born perfectionist,” Mrs. Simmons says. “He’s analytical and has higher expectations. That’s why we’re able to balance our lifestyles. Opposites attract, I guess. He has to have a game plan before he walks out the door. I just walk out the door and wing it.

“He says sit down and do your homework,’ and I’ll say sit down and do your homework, but you can take your time about it, it doesn’t have to be done in an hour.’

“My philosophy a lot of the time is wing it.’ We say that a lot. I don’t say it lightly, but I say it because you’re talking about individuals with different personalities.”

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