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.)

In this one-hour interview, several major issues are discussed: the influence and limitations of birth order theory; the relevance of birth order in Classical Adlerian Depth Psychotherapy; and other significant influences on personality development.

Topics Discussed

Influence of the Family - Influence of Siblings - Decisive Influences on Personality - Impact of First Child on Parents - Becoming a parent - Effect of Being Special on First Child - Second Child - Each Child Treated Differently - The Last Born - Dethronement - Example of Dethronement - Preparing an Only Child for Siblings - Importance of Birth Order to Adler - The Family Constellation - Typical Birth Order Characteristics - Oldest Child - Middle Child - Youngest Child - A Pacemaker - Dreams and Birth Order - Genetics and Environment - Nature vs. Nurture - Birth Order Strategies - Most Neurotic? - Problems of Oldest Children - Problems of Middle Children - Problems of Youngest Children - Carrying the Birth Order Characteristics in Adulthood - Birth Order and Early memories - Reliving the Same Experience - Presidential Assassins - Frank Sulloway and Judith Harris Controversy - Influences of Thomas Verney and Hugh Missildine - General Importance of Birth Order - Influences in the Early Lives of Famous People

Influence of the Family

BBC: 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?

Stein: 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

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

Stein: 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

BBC: 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.

Stein: 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

BBC: 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?

Stein: 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

BBC: 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.”

Stein: 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

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

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