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First Of The Flock

C.B. Gavant

If you’re a firstborn, are married to one, or gave birth to one, you may be familiar with the typical personality traits: strong-willed, confident, determined, driven, organized, reliable, and super responsible. Family First looks at why oldest children turn out that way, the benefits and pitfalls of being born first, plus how to best parent your bechor or bechorah.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

At the age of eight, firstborn Karen Stein*, was given instructions on how to do something by an adult in the family. “How can you tell me what to do? I’ve already raised four children!” replied Karen, now a grandmother living in Silver Spring, Maryland, referring to her younger siblings.

That strong-willed confidence is typical of oldest children, who are often leaders of the pack, second-in-command after mother and father, and role models for the children who follow.

Research indicates that firstborns can be determined, driven, hardworking, organized, scholarly, and super-conscientious. They’re known to have very strong personalities, making them suited for leadership roles. Studies have consistently revealed that oldest children tend to excel academically, and often pursue intellectual professions in the fields of science, medicine, or law.

When it comes to exacting, precise work like engineering, bookkeeping, and accounting, firstborns also take the cake, explains Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book (Revell, 2004). According to him, firstborns come in two types: the strong-willed movers and shakers, and the reliable, conscientious do-gooders.

Are oldest children born with these characteristics — or do they develop them as a result of their birth order? What are the pluses and minuses of being the oldest? And what should parents keep in mind when raising their firstborn?

As an oldest myself, I found these questions fascinating. Here are the answers I turned up:


Coming in First Place

Birth order isn’t a “cookie-cutter process,” Dr. Leman admits, but it has proven to be a helpful tool in understanding where a person is coming from and how his or her personality has been molded.

A child with firstborn traits doesn’t always have to be the actual firstborn, adds Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, principal of Meohr Bais Yaakov and author of Preparing Your Child for Success (Artscroll/Mesorah, 2005). In frum families, there can be more than one “oldest” — the eldest son or daughter, even if not the actual firstborn, often exhibits firstborn traits. Similarly, the oldest child after a gap in the family or in a line of boys or girls can be considered a “firstborn.” 

Whether someone is the actual bechor or the first boy after a string of girls, he can count on being watched — by his parents and by all the younger siblings. “An oldest child tends to feel a sense of responsibility — he or she is leading the flock,” says Rebbetzin Malka Kaganoff, author of Dear Kallah (Feldheim, 1993) and longtime chinuch advisor. 

Tova Weissman*, the eldest of six, is familiar with this reality: “Many of the family decisions were paved with me. I was the first to reach every milestone, so where I went to camp, which seminary I attended, and how my chasunah looked set the tone for the rest of the family.”

From an early age, firstborns can take on adult traits because, being the oldest, their role models are usually grownups. They generally thrive on being in control, on time, and organized — all characteristics that stand adults in good stead.

This is a good description of Blimie Deutsch*, an oldest of nine: “I’m definitely a perfectionist, much more so than any of my siblings. I need to do everything to a T.”

Having adult role models might also explain how Tova developed her personality. “I was the G.O. president in high school and I always organized the family get-togethers. Now I run the Nshei in my neighborhood and I’m very much a doer. My days, weeks, and months are all scheduled. I’m very goal-oriented, constantly asking myself Is this where I want to be, where I want to be going?

But the biggest factor that shapes firstborns is their parents. Oldest children are generally on the receiving end of far more attention than their younger siblings, and are raised by far less experienced parents, explains Dr. Leman. This inevitably results in a measure of over-protectiveness and over-anxiety. (Rabbi Greenwald jokes that a bechor receives a double portion because his parents make all their mistakes on him.)

Most older siblings also say that their younger siblings — especially if there’s a large age gap — were raised by far more permissive, laidback parents. This is natural, explains Rebbetzin Kaganoff, because “parents start off raising their children with rules and expectations, and later end up bending the rules, either because they find the rules are unnecessary or because they don’t have the energy to enforce them anymore. The oldest children in a family are therefore raised with more rules and structure — and more expectations.”


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