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.This transcription is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced, in whole or part, without the expressed consent of Dr. Stein (email: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: 360-647-5670).
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.
In terns of siblings, how do they influence people’s behavior?
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.
Influences on Personality
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
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.
of First Child on Parents
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?
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.
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.”
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).
of Being Special on First Child
What is the effect on the first child, of him being treated so
special, and how significant is that?
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..
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?
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.
Child Treated Differently
Do parents treat the second child differently then they do the first
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
Could you describe Adler's idea of dethronement?.
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.
Is that about this image of king baby being disposed?
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
How frequently do you see dethronement in action?
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.
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?
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.
an Only Child for Siblings
Do you get people coming to you to help prepare their only children
for the arrival of siblings?
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.
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?
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.
of Birth Order to Adler
How important was the notion of birth order to Adler and to his
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.
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?
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.
Birth Order Characteristics
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?
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.
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?
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.
What about the middle child?
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.
Last but not least the last born?
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.
That notion of the pacemaker is something which is important for the
middle born, seeing the eldest pacemaker?
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
and Birth Order
In terms of dreams, are they characteristic of first borns and middle
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.
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
I feel no need to critique or defend Adler on that issue, but I guess
were talking about genetic engineering.
No were talking about the idea of you inheriting your personality.
Sorry I misunderstood
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.
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.
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
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.
Do you see current birth order as a set of strategies, or is it for
instance, in terms of family leashes?
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.
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?
I remember reading that, but I think he said it was oldest followed
Middles were the least psychologically disturbed.
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.
of Oldest Children
Is there anything typical that you find in your own work in terms of
the kinds of problems that eldest children have?
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.
of Middle Children
What about middles?
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.
of Youngest Children
And the youngest?
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.
the Birth Order Qualities in Adulthood
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
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.
Order and Early Memories
So in terms of birth order how does that play out?
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.
the Same Experience
But you said before that some people go through life as if they were
constantly reliving the same experience?
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.
So in terms of that kind of notion of presidents and assassins, do
you think that is a function of birth order?
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
Sulloway and Judith Harris Controversy
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
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
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?
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.
of ThomasVerney and Hugh Missildine
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
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.
Importance of Birth Order
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?
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.
in the Early Lives of Famous People
Stein: 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
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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