Nearly 90 years ago, a psychologist proposed that birth order could have an impact on what kind of person a child becomes. The idea took hold in popular culture. Today, when a child is showing signs of being spoiled, you’ll often hear others say, “Well, they’re the baby of our family.”
What does it mean to be the last one in the birth order, and what exactly is youngest child syndrome? Here are some of the theories about youngest child syndrome and why being last can put a child ahead in the long run.
In 1927, psychologist Alfred Adler first wrote about birth order and what it predicted for behavior. Over the years, a number of theories and definitions have been put forward. But by and large, youngest children are described as:
- highly social
- good at problem solving
- adept at getting others to do things for them
Many actors and performers are the youngest siblings in their families. This supports the theory that being last encourages children to be charming and funny. They might do this in order to get attention in a crowded family field.
Youngest children are also often described as spoiled, willing to take unnecessary risks, and less intelligent than their oldest siblings. Psychologists have theorized that parents coddle youngest children. They also might ask older siblings to take on battles for little brothers and sisters, leaving the youngest children unable to care for themselves adequately.
Researchers have also suggested that youngest children sometimes believe they’re invincible because no one ever lets them fail. As a result, youngest children are believed to be unafraid to do risky things. They might not see consequences as clearly as children who were born before them.
One thing Adler believed was that birth order shouldn’t only take into account who was really born first and who was really born last.
Often, the way people feel about their order in a line of siblings is just as important as their actual birth order. This is also known as their psychological birth order. For instance, if a first-born child is chronically ill or disabled, younger siblings may take on the role normally reserved for that child.
Likewise, if one set of siblings in a family is born several years before a second set of siblings, both sets may have a child who takes on traits of a first born or youngest child. Blended families also find that some stepsiblings feel like they maintain their original birth order, but also begin to feel they have a new order within the combined family.
After decades of study, researchers are beginning to think that birth order, while fascinating, may not be as influential as originally thought. New research is challenging the notion that birth order is what causes people to behave in certain ways. In fact, issues like gender, parental involvement, and stereotypes may play a larger role.
Is your baby doomed to all the qualities attributed to youngest child syndrome, including the negative ones? Probably not, especially if you pay attention to what you expect of your children. Be aware of what your own stereotypes about birth order and families are, and how those stereotypes impact your choices in the family. For example:
- Let children interact with each other freely to develop their own way of doing some things. When left to sort it out on their own, siblings may be less bound to act based on birth order and more interested in the different skills they each can offer.
- Give all of your children responsibilities and duties within the family routine. These should be developmentally appropriate. Even the littlest ones can put away a few toys and contribute to the clean up.
- Don’t assume that little ones aren’t capable of doing damage. If the youngest child has caused harm, then address it appropriately rather than brushing off the incident. Youngest children need to learn empathy, but they also need to learn that there are consequences to actions that hurt others.
- Don’t make the youngest child fight for the family’s attention. Children develop sometimes harmful tactics for getting attention when they don’t feel like anyone is paying attention to them. Your third-grader may be able to discuss the school day with more sophistication, but your kindergartner should also get time to talk without having to battle for it.
- Several studies examining whether birth order impacts intelligence have discovered there’s an advantage for first-born children. But it’s typically only one or two points, not exactly enough to separate Einstein from Forrest Gump. Try not to hold your youngest child’s achievements up to the standard set by your oldest child.
Youngest child syndrome may be a myth. But even if it’s a truly influential factor, it’s not all bad. A youngest child has caregivers who are more experienced, siblings who keep them company, and the security of a home already stocked with the things a child needs.
Youngest children can watch older siblings test boundaries, make mistakes, and try new things first. Youngest children may be home alone for a year or two with caregivers who aren’t frantic over a newborn.
Youngest children may be more creative and social. These are skills that are increasingly in demand in an economy where collaborative work is valued. Ultimately, youngest child syndrome doesn’t have to be defined by its negatives. It can be a positive position for your child’s future. And as you think about how you will “prevent” your child from developing the negative traits of youngest child syndrome, remember that birth order is just a theory. It’s not a definition of a life.