Alfred Adler was an Austrian psychologist and philosopher who took a laid-back yet intellectual approach to his work. He was born in Vienna on February 7, 1870 and was the third child in a Jewish family. As a young boy he developed rickets, a disease which prevented him to walk until age four. A year later he almost died while fighting pneumonia; this is when he decided he wanted to be a doctor. His obvious ailments and competition with a successful older brother sparked Adler’s interest in birth order. He felt he needed to prove himself because he felt inferior to a sibling that had no physical disabilities.
Adler received his medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1895, where he became interested in social activism and met his Russian wife. They were married in 1897 and had four children, two of which became psychiatrists. Adler was very friendly with Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and the psychosexual theory. Freud named Adler the president of the Viennese Analytic Society after they met at a discussion group in 1907. Although they remained close for ten years their views differed tremendously; in the end of their friendship Adler couldn’t stand Freud’s obsession with sex and death. He also disliked how strict his theories were.
Adler was involved in World War I, serving as a physician in the Austrian Army and then worked in a children’s hospital. When the war was over he spent his time in clinics and even trainining teachers; shortly thereafter he accepted a position at the Long Island College of Medicine and moved to the United States with his family.
Like Freud, Alfred Adler believed that personality was developed very early on in life; they both thought that by the age of five we had not only laid the ground work but had built upon that foundation of our personality. Adler was the first theorist to introduce birth order and its influence on human development. Although he was a prestigious psychologist and philosopher, he is very different from the psychologists we’ve studied. He considered birth order to be a “heuristic” idea — he said it was a useful fiction and something that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. His work was from uptight, like the rigid and strictly scientific ideas of his peers. Adler was vastly influenced by a philosopher named Hans Vaihinger, who believed that since the ultimate truth we seek as humans is beyond us, we must come up with partial truths. These “useful constructs” work for the moment and are used as place-markers, which hopefully lead us to the whole truth. We can see Vaihinger’s influence in Adler’s work not only in his birth order theory but in others as well.
Many psychologists believe that children strive to fit into pre-determined or cookie-cutter type “niches” in a family — if you think about it, there is usually an athletic child, an intelligent or overachiever-type child, and so on. These personalities differ not only because they focus on the area they’re good at, but they “adopt different strategies in the universal quest for parental favor.” It’s always a competition with siblings, for their parents’ love, affection, and time. It seems, however, that parents treat their children differently depending on their birth order or the spot they’re in. Sometimes it’s even how the parent relates to the spot itself (www.parents.com) depending on their own birth order with their siblings.
There are different categories for birth order and, with anything, there are exceptions to the rule. The categories are first-born, middle child/second child, last born/youngest child, and only children. The exceptions include blended families, twins, gap children, and adoption. “As with everything in Adler’s system, birth order is to be understood in the context of the individuals own special circumstances.” (www.webspace.ship.edu) This means that because every family dynamic is so unique, not everyone fits into the pre-determined categories and subcategories might even develop as well.
The first-born child is an experiment for the new parents; life suddenly isn’t all about them as a couple anymore, all attention is focused on the baby. The first-born child begins as an only child but as the family settles in, the second “dethrones” the first. How does the first-born react? Sometimes they may battle the new baby for their position; they’re usually jealous that most of the attention is on the second child and they’re not used to sharing their parents with anyone. Some first-born children even start acting like babies; they figure if it works for the new child why wouldn’t it work for them? As they get older they start to feel that younger siblings get away with everything; they are most likely to become the problem child, which entails disobedience and rebellion towards authority. Parents are usually very cautious and extremely attentive with their first-born; this neurotic parental behavior has a major impact on the development of their child’s personality. This may cause the first-born child to become a perfectionist, someone who always tries to please their parents. They are usually reliable, structure, cautious, controlling, and over-achievers. Despite their sibling rivalry and fight for attention, they’re usually nurturing towards the younger children and show leader qualities. As first-born children transition into adulthood, their traits aren’t lost. Most identify themselves with the traits listed above, and most shine through in their careers.
The second/middle child has the first-born paving the way for them; because their older sibling is a “pace-setter” it is only natural for the second child to become competitive. One major issue with this competition is that even if they succeed in surpassing their older sibling, they struggle with feeling the race has no finish line. It is a life-long battle with second/middle children as well as their struggle with identity; since they’re not the oldest and they’re not the youngest they subconsciously wonder “Who am I?” (www.parents.com). Middle children, unlike the first-born, tend to focus more on pleasing their peers rather than their parents. They do this because their parents are too caught up with their “beloved first-born” or the baby of the family. Middle children tend to be people-pleasers and they thrive on friendship. They tend to be part of a large social circle and are usually the peacemakers wherever they go. Middle children can be rebellious, however, and a toned down version of this crosses over into adulthood; they don’t like being told what to do and won’t take any nonsense from anyone.
The last-born/youngest child is the most pampered and spoiled; partially because they have never been dethroned by another sibling and also because there is a social stigma relating to the baby of the family. The youngest child may feel inferior because everyone else in the family is older than them and this somehow makes them superior. Some children are inspired by this, however, and they are driven to become “better” than their siblings. The younger child always wants to do everything the oldest does, and this causes a rift between the two. Last-born children are usually free-spirited, uncomplicated, fun-loving people that are social and outgoing. They can be manipulative, especially with their parents because they think they can get or do whatever they want. Most last-born children are attention-seeking and self-centered. As adults, the last-born children are simplistic in nature and are very low-key. They don’t require as much security because they received a lot of it as children.
The only-child is a unique position in the family structure. They have no one to compete with, resulting in receiving all of their parents’ attention and resources for their entire lives. Only-children are sometimes referred to as “super first-born”; they possess the qualities and characteristics of the first-born but it’s amplified. The issue with parents only having one child is that everything is on them, support and expectations. They usually have a hard time transitioning to a school setting, they’re so used to being the center of attention at home and now they have to share that with their peers. Only-children tend to be mature for their age with a very advanced sense of humor. They tend to understand sarcasm easily because they’re around adults all of them time, their vocabulary is extensive as a result. Only-children are also diligent perfectionists and show leader qualities. As adults they “may not necessarily shed their need to be model human beings” (www.parents.com) and their need for everything to be perfect sticks with them throughout their lives.
So what are the exceptions to this birth order structure? Blended families is the first, which entails divorce, remarriage, and the combining of step-children. Dr. Leman, a psychologist who has focused his studies on birth order for over 40 years, states, “Blended families don’t blend, they collide.” This happens because the first-born of one family might not be the
oldest anymore; when they are dethroned by the opposite family’s first-born they start to lash out. The youngest might not be the baby anymore, which results in the child feeling torn and confused. These children will not tailor or change their personalities as a result of this change, but if there is an infant involved they will adapt to the new family dynamic and their personality will follow suit. Twins are the second exception; they are considered “families within families” (www.parents.com) and are perceived as a single unit. A twin will either act like the first born or like the baby, they won’t show qualities of a middle child. The third exception is gap children; if there is a gap of five or more years in between children a new structure of birth order will form within that family. The fourth exception is adoption; age is a key factor in this situation. If a 2 year old is adopted into a family with a 5 year old sibling, the adopted child will take the “baby” role even though they are biologically a first-born child. However, if an 8 year old is adopted into a family with a 12 year old sibling, both will act like a first born. “You take your birth order with you, you don’t give up being first-born at this age.” (www.parents.com)
Gender also plays a role in the traditional birth order structure. If there are three or more siblings and only one is a boy, they tend to spend most of the time around women even outside of the family. Eventually he may try to prove himself and boast his masculinity. When there is a family of three or more siblings and only one is a girl, the boys may be over-protective of their only sister. This may result in two extremes; either the girl will become very feminine or she will compete with her brothers and become a tomboy. When all children are boys, the mother may dress the child in a more feminine manner because she had always wanted a girl. The same goes for the opposite, when all children are girls the mother may dress them in a more masculine manner. The child will either embrace what the parents have set for them or they will rebel.
There is one burning question in regards to birth order and human development: Who really influences the formation of a child’s personality? Studies show that siblings have an impact, peers and friends most definitely have an impact, but it is the parents or parental figures that have the most influence in this matter. According child and family therapist Meri Wallace, who has written a book called Birth Order Blues, this is because “the first year of life [entails] bonding with the primary caretaker” and this “impacts self-confidence, trust, and the ability to interact with another person.” The memories and love shared between a child and their parent leaves an impression that inevitably shapes their behavior and temperament. “Children who feel loved and secure are less likely to rebel and cause trouble than children who feel inferior.” (www.livestrong.com) Because a child’s birth order may affect their self esteem and how they view themselves, it is important for parents to know they shouldn’t compare their children; they should help their children see themselves as unique and special.
Alfred Adler’s theory has been praised and criticized; those who studied his work liked that he was very straight-forward and used a simple structure. He was very laid-back and “common-sensical”, which led his theory to be “both comfortable and highly influential.” (www.webspace.ship.edu) On the other hand, many criticized and argued whether his theory was truly scientific. He didn’t utilize anything that was measurable and didn’t include scientific variables; he used basic concepts that didn’t meet scientific standards. Adler believed that people are determined by their goals, values, and choices; he stressed that a person created their own personality. Others argue that his theory only pertains to certain people and isn’t general enough to apply it to a wider range. “All of his concepts are useful constructs, not absolute truths, and science is just a matter of creating increasingly useful constructs.” (www.webspace.ship.edu)
Alfred Adler passed away on May 28, 1937 at the age of 67; he was lecturing at Aberdeen University and suffered from a heart attack. Although his theory on birth order may not apply to every family unit, it is a rough guideline that makes sense. Adler made a lasting impact on the psychological and even social world; his work is not only interesting, it’s relatable to those that studied his theories.