Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Birth Order: Sense & Nonsense
An Adlerian View

Henry T. Stein, Ph.D.

Interviewed by Mick Connefrey, BBC-TV
On February 2, 1999 at the Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco

(Transcription of a video DVD; Headings added, and dialog edited for readability.)

Influence of the Family

Mick: This big question, I guess it is an opening question. How important do you think the family is in the way one's personality is formed?

Henry: It depends. Generally speaking, from an Adlerian point of view, it is the most important, but, however, what part of the family. We frequently put a lot of emphasis on the parental influence, especially when it goes away from being positive or cooperative. But siblings can also be a strong influence.

Influence of Siblings

M: In terns of siblings, how do they influence people’s behavior?

H: Well, part of it can be the fact of whether there are any, or not. For example, only children who do not have siblings, are influenced by the fact that they are living in a world of adults most the time. They may miss having a brother or sister. They may even fantasize having a sibling. But, if you are an only child, and suddenly another one comes along, the important question is, how prepared are you for that? If you are well prepared, you can look forward to a little brother or sister, help them, teach them, and take care of them. If you are not prepared, the idea of dethronement may take hold; and king baby has fallen off his throne. That can be a shock for some people. They can dislike or even hate a younger child for what has been taken away from them.

Decisive Influences on Personality

M: If we can move on to very specific things, a general idea, what are the decisive influences on people’s personality? The things that make you the sort of person you are, and where the family fits into that.

H: The most decisive, I would say, is what Adler called creative power, which is impossible to predict. There is no cause here, it is like the idea of soul. An individual is endowed, according to Adler, with a certain creative power, which means he will see and experience what happens, and make something new or fresh out of it. That is what we call the “x-factor” that is at the bottom of everything. It allows for free choice. The attitude of the parents is very strong, especially if there is something dramatic: abuse, domination, or cruelty. The siblings may also have an effect. But there are also things outside of the family: economic conditions can be a powerful influence; social conditions; the position of the family in the community; in some cases religious influences are very strong; and cultural influences. We have to weigh out which is strong and which is not. A very central thing that Adler talked about was first look at the health of the child; is the child normal, does the child have any physical disabilities, is the child sickly. That could have a very decisive influence on the child. And then, more so back in his days compared to today, gender role--there was a time when being a girl was considered a great disadvantage. So we like to determine which of these primary influences are really seminal, and which is important in a specific case. So, as a clinician, I’m less interested in the research about many people, I’m more interested in what can I do that would help this particular client. So I do a complete history, and from that history I consider which of these influences is most relevant.

Impact of First Child on Parents

M: If we go through the life stages of the child and the family, how important is the arrival of the first child for the parents, and what impact does that have on the child?

H: Well, the first child, generally speaking, is a miracle, an incredible event for most people, if the child is wanted. So, the parents are terribly excited, and it’s understandable, it is inevitably. The impact on the child, is you usually get this two-hundred percent attention which can even multiply to four-hundred percent, if you have some grandparents around. There is one man I know, who had six-hundred percent attention, because there were all of these people who were making a huge fuss over him, like “you were the most wonderful thing that ever happened.” That massive amount of attention could be misleading to the child, and he may want it to continue indefinitely. As soon as possible, the needs and rights of other people need to be considered.

Becoming a Parent

M: You sense that as a parent, when you have your first child, it is your introduction to being fertile. You realize your potential for creating life, “I have a kid, it is a big thing.”

H: To many people it is. But I would question the real motives of some people about having children-- it may be “the thing to do.” Not everybody has, deeply inside, an urge and interest in being a parent. Would most people know what that really involves? There is a romantic view of this, which may not consider how much patience, teaching, and encouragement is actually required. Somebody once pointed out to me that you need a driver’s license to drive a car, but to have a child you don’t need one. Wouldn’t be a bad idea (laughing).

Effect of Being Special on First Child

M: What is the effect on the first child, of him being treated so special, and how significant is that?

H: The infant really needs that attentive care and that consideration, because he is helpless. He needs that feeling of being protected, valued, and loved. Then gradually, what needs to happen, is the parent needs to help the child see that other people are also important. His emerging self-esteem should not be based on what comes to him, how much he is served. A spoiled child, for example, will measure his success in life by how many toys he has, or how much attention he is given. However, if a child can see that real self-esteem comes from overcoming difficulties and becoming a cooperative, giving person, then that desire for pampering can disappear. A very giving child wants to help you, he does not need to be pushed into being responsible and cooperative..

Second Child

M: What about the second child? The first child is king baby, getting two to six-hundred percent attention. What are the parents' response to the second child?

H: The parents are a little more experienced in a positive sense. So, the parents are probably less tense and anxious about the second child. The second child comes into a family where he is not by himself, he has another sibling, so there may be an easier adaptation to a peer. But if the first child is ahead of the second child by too many years, there can be a feeling in the second child that he needs to catch up, or surpass the older sibling. This is normal, but if that first child is exceptional in some way, and there is no way of catching up, then the second child can become very discouraged. Frequently, second children see a pacemaker in front of them. This could be positive, if it is a benevolent pacemaker. But, if it is not, if the first child tries to put the second child down, to dominate and discourage him, then the second child may become very resentful. As a matter a fact there was an interesting article by a psychiatrist named Harris, quite a few years ago, about birth order related to presidential assassins. Most of them were younger boys with older brothers. With one exception, and he may have been a paid assassin. So, second children have a lot of ground to cover, and frequently develop high levels of activity and competitiveness.

Each Child Treated Differently

M: Do parents treat the second child differently then they do the first child?

H: They treat every child differently, the situation changes. There is a kind of feedback loop. Parents often say, “we treat our children the same,” but they don’t, they can’t. For example, if the second child is a long-desired girl, then maybe there is a sense of, “I’m delighted to have a female child now.” The boy can feel that something is wrong with him. Over time, parents adapt to their changing situations. If their economic situation changes, they might begin having having financial problems. The father may have lost his job, and although they may have been affluent with the first child, with the second child they may have to live more frugally. Illness or death can also be factors that change a situation dramatically. If the child starts misbehaving, and giving the parent problems, maybe not even intentionally, especially if the child has physical problems, the parents may have a negative reaction and vicious circle may start.

The Last Born

M: Sometimes parents know when they have their last child, and sometimes they don’t. For the parents that have decided, or soon realize it is there last child, is there something special about being the last one?

H: Yes

M: Coming from the view point of the parents do you think there is a general sense in which parents think the last born should be different?

H: They may just think were going to enjoy the last child. They may put expectations on the older siblings. The oldest child may be expected to be a good example, and to do well in school. By contrast,he parents might simply want to enjoy the last child. He or she might be treated like king baby. Frequently, you see youngest children who are very fun loving, the life of the party. The parents can actually have the feeling that this is their last child, they know a little more, maybe they are in a better financial situation. Then they indulge the last child, which doesn’t usually make the other children that happy.


M: Can you tell me about the central idea of dethronement? Where does it come from, and how important is it to a child's outlook?

H: It has to do with comparison and discouragement. For example, an only child, who is used to a great deal of attention and service, and used to being very special, now has to share, all of these goodies. A new infant is in the spotlight, and there is a lot of fuss made of this baby. It can result in a crushing feeling of disappointment, especially if there is no explanation. “Why did I suddenly lose this favorite position, all of this attention.” She can feel hurt or anxiety, “I hope this doesn’t happen ever again.” Often, oldest children go through their lives thinking, “Is somebody going to displace me?” It can become a persistent, haunting feeling. It doesn’t always happen, but if it does, then it means the oldest child, who was a model child, turns into a problem child. He tries to regain the parents attention, maybe at first, trying to be helpful and if that doesn’t work, becoming a little annoying. Initially, he has to settle for fifty-percent attention, but because he is annoying, he then only gets thirty-percent attention. His mother scolds him, but he doesn’t understand why all of this is happening. It really wouldn’t take much to give him a helpful explanation, and some encouragement. He needs the feeling that he has not been displaced, but that the family has been enlarged, and that his help is now needed and valued.

M: Could you describe Adler's idea of dethronement?.

H: Adler used the term dethronement to describe the experience of a child who who followed by another child in the family constellation, and experiences a change of position and value in the family. In many cases that change doesn’t feel very good.

M: Is that about this image of king baby being disposed?

H: Yes, the art of parenting a series of children, would be to have each child feel fully accepted, loved, and cared for, but not to feel too special in a spoiling sense. Each child needs to feel a sense of equality, of being just as important as the parent, no more or no less important then the mother, father, brothers or sisters. Not many parents are skillful at doing that, probably because they don’t believe it.

M: How frequently do you see dethronement in action?

H: I can’t really give you a percentage, but there are times when I find an adult who bitterly feels this early dethronement, and in a very self-defeating way is either trying to make up for it, or have life make up for it. Or, they may try to dethrone other people, so there could be a revengeful component. I can’t say that it happens one-third or twenty-percent of the time, but when it happens it is pretty strong.

Example of Dethronement

M: Can you think about examples, without literally naming people, when you have encountered people where you felt the people carried that dethronement the rest of their lives?

H: Yes, there was one woman who I can recall was the only child for a while. Several years later, she had a younger brother, and the father was absolutely thrilled to have a boy. One of the problems was that he wanted the boy so much, that in his dealings with her, before the birth of a son, she sort of picked it up and played a tom boy role. She became the fathers buddy. They went hunting together, and did a lot of guy things together. She was happy, and he was I guess happy enough with his substitute son, until a real son came along. She literally came unglued at that point, because she was displaced by a real boy. The father didn’t help the situation very much, he made his preferences known. That was a painful situation for her.

Preparing an Only Child for Siblings

M: Do you get people coming to you to help prepare their only children for the arrival of siblings?

H: Yes, not enough, but people with some wisdom will do this. They will say, “I’ve done some reading, and I understand this could be a problem.” One way that I have contacted people is by doing parent education workshops. For several years, I was a consultant to a Montessori preschool. It was marvelous, because we would have weekly workshops with teachers and parents, and we would talk about some of the Adlerian child guidance principles. Frequently, parents would come to the realization that they need more preparation for the next child, and then they would then come to see me. That was an easy way of making the transition.

M: You have this notion of dethronement and the first child is dethroned by the next, and so on, until the last one arrives. Does dethronement create the dynamics of birth order?

H: It’s not so much the dethronement; it’s the atmosphere of competition. In a highly competitive family, the leading idea may be, “He who is first is the winner, and second place is nothing.” The idea of dethronement is coming in second, or being placed in second place. So there is an Adlerian assumption, that the more competitive the family or the more competitive a culture is, (I don’t mean competition in a positive sense of stimulation, I mean rivalry, where I have got to go up and you have got to go down.), or the more rivalry there is, the greater differences you will find in birth order. In sense, the ratio of differences is related to this degree of wanting to be different, and finding your own place. An example, if one child is cooperative and very helpful, the place in the family is taken. How do you compete with that? You find a place by being disruptive, or being funny. Adler said that if we can develop more cooperative families, more democratic families, a more democratic culture, gradually the differences in birth order will begin to vanish.

Importance of Birth Order to Adler

M: How important was the notion of birth order to Adler and to his thinking?

H: Pretty important for a while, I would say that after he developed his first theory about organ inferiority as the leading edge of what forms the personality; he began to see that there were psychological factors. He is thought of being a very social orientated person, were did they come from if they didn’t come from the family? First he thought they came from the parents and then eventually from the brothers and sisters. He started gradually moving out, and he began to realize later on even school mates and teachers could have an important, not so much initial effect, but a corrective effect. So he put a great deal of value on training teachers to guide children, he said we will never reach enough parents.

The Family Constellation

M: He comes up with this notion of the family constellation within which birth order operates, can you tell me about that? What is the concept of the family constellation, what sort of notion does he have in the importance of family on the individual?

H: Were talking about the constellation of siblings primarily. It’s like the child will perceive a certain situation, like I’m the second or the youngest. But, he says that doesn’t actually cause anything; it is the child’s interpretation of it. Because a child can easily interpret any position in terms of advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to looking at family constellation I hesitate to categorize a person as an oldest who would probably be a certain way. I might look at them and say here is an oldest with some probability that they might have a little bit of a leaning, but what is most important is how much courage does this person have, how much of a feeling of community do they have, how much activity do they have? Then you would say would they then move in a positive or negative direction for that particularly family constellation position because you would have an oldest child who becomes a model guide, teacher and tutor, a benevolent protector. You could have an oldest child who becomes a dictator; you could have a second child who can’t wait to topple the first one from his throne, to do anything to trip him up, the second child who becomes modestly accomplished, but also not in the sense of wishing anybody to be defeated. Youngest children can become very helpless, if they are pampered and babied too much. The youngest children also if they have enough courage and activity can do marvelous things, incredible things. Sometimes you find a youngest child, as Adler would say, saves the entire family, or does absolutely remarkable things that nobody thought could be done.

Typical Birth Order Characteristics

M: In terms of the birth order types and typical pattern. Your saying that sometimes these types will become important and others times they won’t. What determines whether somebody behaves like a typical eldest, or a typical youngest, or a typical middle?

H: It’s a matter Adler talked about a psychology of use. Once a child has an idea and nobody causes this idea, birth order doesn’t cause it, the parent doesn’t cause it, the child’s own creative powers, this is the direction I want to go in. Then the child uses whatever bricks they can find to build this edifice, so if the child wants to use an aspect of birth order they will use it. It is like the idea of a parent who is rejecting of a child. It can be painful; it’s not healthy, it’s not positive. One child would use that rejection in a sense to justify being compensated for the rest of their life. Or to gaining some kind of revenge on other people, but another child can become very sensitive and empathic. And say, you know I don’t think other people should be rejected and I’m very sensitive to children who have been and I’m going to help them. So it’s a matter of once there is at some point in childhood usually before the age of five a kind of ideal, a direction to go in. Then it’s like the person uses whatever materials are available, birth order, physical, for example a child who is very beautiful, can use that in a positive or a negative way.

Oldest Child

M: In terms of the types then. Can you give me what the characteristics of the typical eldest style, although it is accepting the idea that nothing is set in stone?

H: There are some tendencies which don’t fit every case, but none the less they seem to be tendencies. The oldest child has a tendency to like to be in an authority position. They usually were in an authority position, by taking care of the brothers and sisters, and so they are comfortable with it. Oldest children sometimes tend to be responsible and sometimes hyper responsible. They have to set a good example. They frequently tend to do somewhat better in school sometimes ever in higher education. Larger in part because they are expected in so many cases to do this and set an example. Oldest children can also be very maternal or paternal, and be empathic and be marvelous teachers, make marvelous pastors or ministers. It can go by the way, but there is a tendency to want to be in a position in some kind of authority, I think they are overrepresented as CEO’s.

Middle Child

M: What about the middle child?

H: The middle child sometimes gets a little lost. They sometimes are not sure were they fit. Because they can look up and look down and say I don’t have those advantages or those advantages, what do I have? So there can be a sense for a middle child a sense of unfairness in life. Life’s not fair, or I don’t get my share. That can turn negative or positive. I’m mad and angry and I’m going to grab my share. Or I’m just going to sit here and pout about it. Or you can develop a kind of sensitivity to justice, become a lawyer. I think there are a fair number of middle children who go into the legal profession. Or you work for social justice. There are a lot of people who have been dealt with unfairly. I think this really represents Adler’s focus; he says whatever sensitivity you had, if you simply focus only on yourself, your misery, and your problem, and how to deal with yourself, you will sink into the quick sand. But, if you take that same problem and look out and see that other people have this to maybe I could help them as well. Then he says you will save yourself. I think this individual sensitivity is an important factor. Maslow talked about it too; he said each of us has a certain sensitivity that is very important to us. Some people it is an aesthetic sense of sensitivity. I remember Franklin Wright said that he would look at certain buildings and his teeth would hurt, literally hurt because they were so ugly. Maslow talked about his sensitivities; he said that when people would lie and be deceptive he said he would get physically ill, it would make him nauseated. But he and his wife would travel somewhere, his wife would go into a room, and the room wouldn’t be very aesthetically pleasing, she would get uncomfortable, and it wouldn’t bother him in the least. So understanding a person’s sensitiveness and capitalizing on it can be very important, that might relate somewhat to a persons birth order position.

Youngest Child

M: Last but not least the last born?

H: The last born can rudely be the most fun. They generally have a great sense of recreation, getting along with people. As long as they feel secure and they feel that there is no threat. They may suffer from feeling that they are not taken seriously. Baby sister, she is just my kid sister kind of thing. That may bother them considerably. Sometimes the last born has the image of wanting to absolutely outdistance everybody else, they don’t have one pacemaker, they may have five or six and they want to get past everybody. If you want to find somebody who is an overachiever, sometimes the last born will illustrate that, but they can also just as easily drift into feeling kind of like a helpless baby.

A Pacemaker

M: That notion of the pacemaker is something which is important for the middle born, seeing the eldest pacemaker?

H: Yes, but in terms of any pacemaker there is a measuring of how much distance. If it is fairly close, then it can be very stimulating because they think they might catch up. If that distance is to far there is a feeling of why even bother. For example, an oldest boy with a younger sister, now I think it is fairly well established that girls develop at a certain period of time faster then boys. There is a certain period, she is just a couple years younger, she will be developing so fast that she will be beyond him. She will begin to think that I can go past him. So he might become discouraged, so it’s a matter a sensing that out. I remember one case of an oldest boy, who had a younger brother, who was three years younger, and the younger brother was a little genius, awesome genius, this kid was something. Not only that, he was physically strong, very active, and very bright. That older boy was feeling that this kid has already surpassed him and the boy was very competitive. There was a feeling in the younger boy that I am King Kong and I can do anything. The older boy just felt miserable. The question is who is your pacemaker?

Dreams and Birth Order

M: In terms of dreams, are they characteristic of first borns and middle borns?

H: Yes, somewhat considering that the eldest has this idea of I was in first place I should stay in first place. I might not stay there, I might loose it. Any dream of toppling from something, dropping, falling down, being up to high and feeling very insecure, or falling into a bottomless pit. This idea of falling is a constant issue. Only psychological in the dream it becomes very physical. The youngest or second child might dream of outdoing other people because dreams have often times a lot of movement in them. In a physical sense, like in a race, a bicycle race, or motorcycle race, being in a rocket ship, or on the other hand missing the train, having a flat tire, having a problem, not being able to speed up. Youngest child might have dreams of being very small and very tiny, among the land of giants. What I find is that people dream not so much according to their birth order, but they dream according to in a sense, as Adler said, to intoxicate themselves with what he called their private logic, so that they don’t have to follow common sense. Because what Adler said, the most important part of a dream is how you feel when you wake up not so much the content of the dream. Which is interesting, so a dream can discourage, have you ever had a dream of flying were everything is great, you wake up and you think you can do anything that is the point. Dreams that have actually spooked you, scared you to death, you wake up and become very hesitant at that point. I tend to look at dreams as a short term intoxication.

Genetics and Environment

M: A lot of work at the moment is being done on genetics and the idea of comparative personality. When Adler’s writing about genetics in the thirties he dismisses the superstition. I guess he is thinking about a world like Mendel and those very early geneticists developed in the way it is now. He says it is a superstition and in fact what is more important is environment. Do you see that as being important?

H: I feel no need to critique or defend Adler on that issue, but I guess were talking about genetic engineering.

M: No were talking about the idea of you inheriting your personality.

H: Sorry I misunderstood

M: What I’m thinking about is this kind of idea of parent/child effect or child/parent effects. Is the case that the kids actually set up the way the parents treat them? Therefore thinking about birth order would become less relevant if it is the case that your personality is something that is pretty much fixed from the start because you inherited it genetically.

H: I would tend to agree with Adler that personality is not inherited. However there are certain neurological, chemical conditions that can set somebody up for a certain meaning. For example Adler talked about a person who had a congenitally imperious central nervous system; he said that doesn’t cause any personality. Imagine what it is like to have a nervous system were any kind of noise or shock just freaks you out. Were if you get excited you think your heart is going to burst. Instead of being a little scared you are terrified. Your system is all wound up that way. That would be very difficult to live with and understandable that a person might make some choices or decisions that would take that into account and you can say that that is a powerful influence on an individual. But, if we assume something is genetically caused that unless with get in their and fiddle with the DNA of chromosomes we can’t know anything about it really, but if we assume as Adler did with some degree of encouragement that as he said everything can be different. No matter how you start you don’t have to end up that way. You can start in the direction with a great handicap. In fact that is one argument for not doing much genetic engineering. One of our greatest accomplishments is people that have had handicaps and compensated for it. If a make into a perfect bionic person, I wonder what that impact is going to be culturally, aesthetically in life. A lot of writers have come from miserable families. Beethoven was merely deaf, maybe they should have corrected his hearing and then he would have made more beautiful music. I don’t know.

Nature vs. Nurture

M: In terms of the more general issue of nature versus nurture. Whether your personality is in your genes or whether it is something which is about the world you grow up in, your environment, your family, or whatever your environment is. Would you say that from your work that you think it is a genetic element is stronger or weaker, do you believe that shyness or humility; they think that maybe that is genetically given. Instinctively do you think that makes sense to you?

H: No that doesn’t make any sense to me. I look at all character traits, if we are talking about character traits now perhaps shyness and aggressiveness. I look at character traits as essentially devices a person uses to achieve a goal. So like a child who has temper tantrums, if I want to understand why a child does something I look at the social purpose, as long as I’m dealing with a child that is not retarded I have to make the assumption that the child is sensitive to the results he gets for what he does. For example, shyness retrieves results and when it doesn’t retrieve results, kids give it up. So in the sense you have to look at what is the payoff, what is the benefit? Now, for years Neo-Freudians would call it secondary gains, Adler said no, they are primary gains; it is what a person does. So anxiety, an anxious child, nine times out of ten an anxious child has somebody who is sitting with them and giving them extra time, sort of comforting them and reassuring them. If that didn’t happen the child would be so anxious because it works. The real test is when the parent wises up and stops falling for it, but then becomes encouraging. It is interesting to see what children do they don’t waste any time they give it up.

Birth Order Strategies

M: Do you see current birth order as a set of strategies, or is it for instance, in terms of family leashes?

H: You can basically play a particular position for all it is worth. Like a child can be a youngest child and can have a sense of the advantages, being cute for example, being cute and funny and entertaining older brothers and the sisters and they get a big kick out of you, and you feel great and you want to play it up. The oldest child has been very serious and very responsible might have a hard time switching to cute and funny. You know it is like it’s taken, why I didn’t think of that.

Most Neurotic?

M: Adler says that in terms of his experience that eldest children are the ones who he finds most frequently neurotic, they have the most problems. Why do you think that is?

H: I remember reading that, but I think he said it was oldest followed by youngest.

M: Middles were the least psychologically disturbed.

H: I’m not sure exactly why he made that, maybe it was simply the populations, Adler was a pragmatist, he basically reported on what he saw. He didn’t invent a lot of theories this is based on the people I have been seeing. In his practice maybe that was true. I can’t say in my practice that oldest children are the most; I can say that oldest children have certain kinds of problems that they bring to therapy.

Problems of Oldest Children

M: Is there anything typical that you find in your own work in terms of the kinds of problems that eldest children have?

H: Eldest children sometimes have issues of feeling that they are loosing control of the situation. They in the sense have had the illusion that they have had a great deal of control. Maybe it is family or a work situation, maybe it is a partner. But it’s in sense the worse thing in the world that you can have for an oldest child because they have valued being in a dominate or controlling position this feeling that they are loosing it. In a way it is like taking away what is most precious to them and that can create a feeling of depression and anxiety. I remember one woman I worked with and she was an oldest child and she was an extremely meticulous woman beautiful groomed and dressed and very well organized, very accomplished, and she was very anxious because her boyfriend was not making a commitment to her. She felt she was loosing him and she was feeling pretty miserable, generally depressed. Frequently what I like to do is see everyone in the situation, I like to go in the field and see what is happening and I said would he be willing to come in and talk to me and she said maybe. He came in, he said he would come in once, he was not a candidate for therapy. But, I remember the first comment about her, I asked, I said this is a conversation between us, I said could you tell me frankly do you have any complaints because she mentioned that you are not making a commitment. He said, oh yeah, she is a damn master sergeant she has go to be in charge, he said at first it didn’t bother me so much because she took care of a lot of things, but he said it got to a point he said I can’t take that, I can’t live with that. I don’t mind dating her, but I don’t want to live with that. And she just felt that she was loosing him and it took a while for her to understand that people don’t like this. But you see she came from a family were she took care of her brothers and sisters and she kept the family together and they presumably, according to her, appreciated it, well shouldn’t everybody.

Problems of Middle Children

M: What about middles?

H: Middle children sometimes have a feeling of not knowing were they fit in a new situation. They are sometimes a custom to being flanked by an oldest and a youngest and they will come into a new situation and they will sometimes feel they don’t know how to fit in here and they are confused or anxious, disoriented I would say, and they need clarification and part of it is essentially is helping them see that they don’t have to reproduce, in fact in each of these cases, you don’t have to reproduce the early situation. Life can be different; you are not in your family anymore.

Problems of Youngest Children

M: And the youngest?

H: Youngest children don’t generally come in because they are having too much fun, they sometimes come in when life turns too serious. They now have to stop playing and become more responsible, or somebody is complaining like “enough is enough.” A youngest child might possibly be quite self-indulgent, with money, with food, with sex, with a number of things, and so at some point although they can be very charming and entertaining, somebody may say, “you know you got to shape up, you have got to grow up.” “What do you mean grow up. I thought you loved me as I am.” “Well yes, but now we have other responsibilities,” so for a youngest sometimes it is recognizing that you don’t have to give up that fun loving part, but life is not just one long party.

Carrying the Birth Order Qualities in Adulthood

M: Do you think that people do, … I mean the debates around birth order. One of the key ideas is: do people carry their family position into the rest of their life? You mentioned the thing about assassins and CEOs and stuff like that. That seems to be one of the core arguments, families frequently retain an early sense of birth order. Does that matter, does that carry out, does that birth order issue, ... is it something which often people take with them, what do you think?

H: Some people, not everybody, because it depends on what a person originally relates to as the bench marks of their own character development. For example, somebody can be locked into mortal combat with a parent. You can’t tell me what to do and I’m going to prove that nobody can tell me what to do. And that is a parent/child issue and that person then carries this into their later life looking for people oddly enough to tell them what to do, and then saying “you can’t.” So that may not have much to do with the sibling thing. The sibling thing may be sort of further on down, so any kind of family issue, whether it is parent or sibling, can be carried mistakenly into adult life, in which case it takes a certain amount of fantasy to turn people into substitutes for your family, but people do it all the time. They don’t see who is there; they see somebody who is like somebody who they remember, and part of it has to do with how you trained yourself. If you trained yourself for fifteen, sixteen, eighteen years to relate to family members in a certain way, you are pretty good at it. Will you suddenly go out into the world and behave differently? If you are creative and you can get past it, yes. But sometimes what it is that you carry with you, all of these traits and behavior patterns that you know how to do, and you look for people to do them with. What determines what a person will carry from their early childhood situation is what Adler called their fictional final goal, which is their ideal that they unconsciously carry with them, as to their idea of success, there idea of significance, and there idea of security. If they can carry with them some reminders from the early years that seem to support this, either as enticements or as warnings, they will carry them along. It is like the idea Adler talked about, earliest memories as being one of the key factors to understand a person. So that sometimes in an earliest memory, what you get is a encapsulated picture, a scenario of a persons style of life. Their personality formation may in fact have something to do with their birth order, but it may have to do with some other things. But it’s like each person will take only what they need, if they need something where birth order fits in, they’ll take it along. And then what will happen is if you have this kind of readiness, it is like somebody who is trained as a CIA operative, what do you do on vacation? You've got to check something out, you've got to play a role. If you train yourself enough, you look for situations that seem to justify repeating this. Because that’s where your sense of significance may come from. Somebody may have beat out an older brother, “I never thought I could do it, but I finally surpassed that SOB. That felt wonderful, I want to do that again.” You find a person in adult life who is kind of like an older brother, takes a while, but you get near him and then what you do is you go zipping past him, and you have a second high and you do it again, and that is sort of slightly compulsive behavior. What will happen is the person then will be recreating something again and again in a pattern, rather then living expansively. Adler said in therapy we try to let people get over these things and so they can live creatively, in a sense, in a new life. You don’t have to redo what happened to you as a child. Adler pointed out that what we believe we remember from childhood, frequently never happened. The way he discovered that was because of a memory he believed he had that was central to his own personality development. Many years later he met a classmate from childhood and he told him about this memory and the man said “no, I don’t know what you are talking about. That cemetery never existed,” and Adler was kind of surprised and shocked, but then he realized he invented something from childhood.

Birth Order and Early Memories

M: So in terms of birth order how does that play out?

H: If the child makes a decision that this is the direction I want to go in. I want to surpass my oldest sisters for example, then that is so important the child then will recall that oldest sister as a pacemaker, or as a competitor, and keep it in memory as kind of an earliest recollection. Or it may appear in dreams as a reminder that this is what you have to do. But if the child made a different decision about a direction in life, he may not recall much about that older sibling. Part of this is to recognize that this artfulness, this work of art that people create, which is their personality, their memories, essentially are integrated, there are no contradictions. The things you remember are the things you have to remember to go in this direction. So one of the things Adler would always say is you can’t argue with the way somebody is going about something, he is doing it correctly for his goal. However, his goal may not make any sense.

Reliving the Same Experience

M: But you said before that some people go through life as if they were constantly reliving the same experience?

H: Yes it’s a matter of if you got good at something or it gave you a high, or it gave you a feeling of power, or a feeling of significance. For example, take the defeat of a sibling early in life, You can become almost intoxicated with that idea, and you want to repeat it, again and again. Now the siblings gone, and you are older, and you have to find somebody that is a good substitute. So you find an approximation, somebody who kind of looks like or feels like your brother. You recast him in the role, and you replay it again. The other person may not have any idea what is going on. This is why with couples you get all of this confusion, and misunderstanding, and aggravation. “Why are you doing this to me?” “The truth of the matter is, because you remind me of my brother, and this is what I did to him and this is what I’m going to do to you.” People can’t actually say that, it sounds so foolish. But indeed, frequently this is what happens. So you may find a sibling who gets recast in a positive or negative way. For example, I had one client, a woman who had a wonderful friendship with her brother. They were two buddies, companions. It was delightful, but she didn’t have much of a relationship with her parents. Then she grew up, and she and her brother moved to different parts of the country. She married a man who reminded her of her brother and they had a wonderful buddy-buddy relationship. But, the romantic side of the relationship didn’t really flourish very well. Eventually he began to complain, he said we live like brother and sister. She didn’t get it. She was happy, she recreated that early situation. So part of this is that people may do things with a partner, but the other person doesn’t get clued in until it is a little late and they wonder what has been happening. How many people are happy feeling like they are simply a poor substitute for an early sibling? It is not very appealing.

Presidential Assassins

M: So in terms of that kind of notion of presidents and assassins, do you think that is a function of birth order?

H: At least according to this doctor Harris. He felt that in many of these cases, a younger boy with an older brother was determined to knock that older brother from a position of power at any cost. So in these cases, they could have the delusion, or have the impression, or cast this presidential figure as an ultimate older brother. So it is kind of like if you want to do some thing, do you want to do it at he level of five stars or one star.? You go after a big figure who represents so much, then you can have this feeling that you have really solved this problem. I mean it is amazing what people will do, the consequences they will endure, the pain they will endure, to realize a fictional goal. This is how Adler explains why people suffer so much and keep getting back into trouble again and again. Why would somebody even become psychotic? Its like they are willing to give up their life, or even commit suicide, for the pursuit of a particular goal, and it may in fact involve another figure like a sibling.

Frank Sulloway and Judith Harris Controversy

M: There is a controversy which is going on at the moment which is between the ideas of Frank Sulloway and Judith Harris. Sulloway wrote a book called Born to Rebel, where he argues that birth order is of essential importance, and that he can see a repeated pattern of youngest siblings being radical, being rebellious, because they are kind of kicking against the oldest, who is more conformist. He claims birth order is very significant. By contrast, Judith Harris, who wrote a book The Nurture Assumption, says your family isn’t that important, your environment isn’t important. What is important are your peers. She claims that your personality is made up of your genetic inheritance, and what your friends are like. Not going into detail, what instinctively do you think about that, which one would you favor?

H: Well I respect Sulloway’s work because he has done a remarkable job as a researcher. Not being a researcher myself I look at people quite differently, one at a time, and how I can help this person. In my teaching, I may refer to Sulloway’s work. Some of his suggestions at the end of his book about future research are quite wonderful. I would agree with him that more research needs to be done. From the point of view of making generalizations it is fascinating. It is helpful for teaching, but as as an assumption, it of very little use in therapy. It is interesting, but I can’t subscribe to the fact that birth order is the most important factor. It is interesting and potentially important, but that can’t cloud my judgment in helping a person. Otherwise, I am sort of the Procrustean bed, I’m trying to squeeze that person into that theory, and I won’t do that. I will use whatever is useful and encouraging in therapy.

Influences of ThomasVerney and Hugh Missildine

H: I am even open to the work of Thomas Verney, who wrote The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. Verney talks about the potential influences during pregnancy. He has interesting ideas and makes all kinds of claims. I mean it’s possible to find one thing and then drill it down to the bottom and say this does it, but in actual practice it is not really that simple. As far as Ms. Harris’s work, and the strong influence of peers, it is not my experience that is that important. Yes, there are some cases were I could support that explanation, but not to the extent that she does. A matter of fact if anything, I would say the influence of parents might be much more important, but she says no. There is an author named Hugh Missildine who wrote a book a while back, Your Inner Child of the Past. He is not a Adlerian, but he did a marvelous job of showing the logic of how certain parental attitudes lead to a child's reaction. Sometimes this very effective, but there are also fads in psychology. It is like “wow, this is it.” People often look for that one magic bullet, only one factor that is causing personality development. I don’t think that ever happens. I can’t look at any of my clients through the lens of one causal influence. As I think about a particular person, I think of a story, a very creative story, and a situation, and how that person responded to it. It is more like writing a novel with a central theme, many parallel melodies, and unique responses from each character. It would be simplistic to claim that character is influenced only by genetics, only by birth order, only by parents, or only by peers. Maybe somebody else can make a case for a single influence on personality development, but I do not find this approach useful in psychotherapy.

General Importance of Birth Order

M: How important do you think birth order is then, relatively speaking, in your experience? Do you think it is frequently important, you say that sometimes it is important, what is your take on it?

H: Frequently, would be a good way to put it, yes frequently important. As a matter of fact one of the things I did in the past when I brought together groups of people, a parent group or even sometimes I have worked with management brought together a group of managers. I will divide them into birth order groups. I will say can we have all of the only children here, and all of the oldest and youngest. For the next fifteen minutes or so would you share your early experiences both positive and negative with each other? And an interesting thing happens; they find they have a lot in common it is like an instant connection. I hardly know you but you are more like me then my brother. It has that capacity to help people understand each other and find some common denominators; in that respect it is quite useful. One of the things as an Adlerian you always look at this in a sense, you never ignore it, is this a prime factor in the situation. It is up there as a strong consideration.

M: But?

Influences in the Early Lives of Famous People

H: But it may not be relevant in this particular case or it may not be strong. The way of feeling that is to say not so much a clinical judgment, what did this person make of that birth order, you are a youngest child, what did you make of that, what did that mean to you, what does it mean to you today? A person can say it is interesting it is a fact but something is more important, it is sort of like saying it is interesting to compare what seems to be strong influences on different people historically. There was a book by Victor and Mildred Goertzel titled Eminent Personalities, and they did a study of what were kind of the circumstances that lead to what seemed to be important in the lives of famous people. Birth order was a part of her book, but also there were things like dysfunctional families. Dysfunctional families seem to be almost a prerequisite for becoming a good fictional writer. If you look at early disabilities it is quite fascinating. You might even say that early disabilities like hearing problems, vision problems, repertory problems, cardiac, are almost just as important as birth order. If you go back Van Gogh had a problem with his vision, Beethoven with his hearing. Theses are dramatic representations but it goes on and on and you can say, has anybody studied this aspect and given it significant weight to compare it to birth order. It is my sense that you would find as much information about that then you will find with birth order. Then you will group people into what was their earliest illness was it repertory, cardiac. As Adler said any difficulties with any of the senses can have strong psychological implications because that is how you contact the world.

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