Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Jacob and Esau effect?

"Which twin was born first?" is something i have often been asked since becoming a mum of multiples and i recently stumbled across a post titled just that over at http://twinparenthood.com/ which has got me thinking, does it actually matter?

Being a mum of two singletons prior to my set of twins has left me in no doubt that the order in which your children are born does affect their own perceptions as to what their role is within the family unit. However it seems absurd to suggest that the same can be said about twins given that only a few minutes not years are all that separates them. There is nothing significant that can take place during such a short amount of time that can seriously influence the individual child's perception of his or her position within the family.

Taking this into consideration the only explanation can be that we as parents and as a society subconsciously impose our own beliefs about the importance of birth order onto the children, thus creating a self fulfilling prophecy. Often i have heard "she is so much bigger than the other twin she must be the oldest" or "you can tell she's the oldest one as she is definitely the boss". I myself am even guilty of falling into this trap, when trying to encourage my twins speech along i immediately concentrated more on Eva's (who is the oldest by 12 minutes)speech as opposed to Isabella's. I wrongly assumed that because Eva was the oldest and most assertive at the time she would be quicker to grasp the concept. I was proved wrong by Isabella almost immediately who started rambling away a whole two months before Eva, i soon learned to stop pigeon holing them.

Birth order definitely creates a competitive streak amongst siblings, my eldest daughter has inevitably take on the role as leader, boss of the playroom and she sees herself as the authority figure amongst all her sisters. My second daughter has become the "naughty little sister" - causing havoc and mischief to get attention, whilst trying to assert herself as her older sisters equal yet at the same time looking to her for guidance in many things like, reading, singing and manipulating mummy and daddy. This for me definitely cements the "middle child syndrome" theory and gives credence to the popular line of thinking that birth order reflects lifelong personality traits.

Having said all this i am still at odds with the notion that this can apply to twins. Eva and Isabella are both as bad as one another, sure they are polar opposites in every way, they are individuals, Eva is the thinker full of mischief and wonderment whilst Belle is the doer the first to crawl, walk talk yet a little clingy too, and they both fall in and out of the role of "the more dominant one". It will be interesting to see how they progress and if in fact the issue of who was the "first born" becomes a part of contention in their relationship as they get older. I do believe though, the fact that they already have two older siblings eliminates a lot of the competitiveness and for some lone sets of twins then an air of importance can be given to the older twin, thus leaving the youngest one feeling a little inferior.

So the next time someone asks "which one was born first?" will you think more carefully about the long term effects your reply can have on your child and their self esteem? Should parents of multiples consider withholding the information of who is the older twin to spare the child's feelings? Or is it irrelevant and unimportant in the grand scheme of things?

**Below is some information about the theory of birth order and it's importance. **

Psychologist Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, defined a set of characteristics to describe how a child's position within the family would actualize in his or her personality. Presented below is a simplified version of his theories, adapted from the Adler Institute website.

Adlerian Birth Order Characteristics

Position: Oldest

Family situation: dethroned by next child. Has to learn to share. Parent expectations are usually very high. Often given responsibility and expected to set an example.

Characteristics: May become authoritarian or strict. Feels power is his right. Can become helpful if encouraged

Position: Second

Family situation: Has a pacemaker, always someone ahead. Is more competitive, wants to overtake older child.

Characteristics: May become a rebel or try to outdo everyone. Competition can deteriorate into rivalry

Position: Middle

Family situation: Is "sandwiched" in. May feel squeezed out of a position of privilege and significance. Even-tempered, "take it or leave it" attitude.

Characteristics: May have trouble finding a place or become a fighter of injustice


Family situation: Has many mothers and fathers in older children. Never dethroned.

Characteristics: Wants to be bigger than the others. Can stay the "baby." Frequently spoiled


  1. It is so hard not to put characteristics onto your child, although everyone says they won't do it they always do. But, I think there is something to the birth order thing. I jsut need to look through my family friends and the elder one is always more responsible, in the more responsible job, the second is always the mischief one, not expected so much to be responsible and who have now got much more creative type jobs. Who knows, probaby all rubbish! My husband is an eldest and so has the middle child syndrome!

  2. Our youngest (of four) is utterly charming and as hard as nails.

  3. I'm definitely an oldest child. I like to think I was encouraged.

  4. OMG...this is so my family. How did you know?

  5. Brits in Bosnia - Your right i always said i wouldn't as i was the eldest child and constantly had to lead by example, but the reality is i can already see history repeating itself with Mia.

    Pineapple Tart - Ha, mine's the same i suppose they have to be with three others to contend with :)

  6. Silly as it sounds, it would never occur to me to ask which twin was born first. I don't think minutes makes a difference :).

    I can understand the theory in siblings born further apart, although I cannot really see me and my brothers fitting into the roles described.

    Interesting post.


  7. Mwa - i second that one :)

    QueenBee - Lol, i work for MI5

  8. Insomniac mummy - Thanks, is interesting to see some poeple fit and some don't and i'm glad you wouldn't ask the question ha :)

  9. Thanks for an interesting read, I'm the oldest of three and can see how my family would fit with the characteristics you list. It's probably too early to tell with my children as they're still little (3 and 1). I'm not sure if it does help twins if you tell them who's the oldest, probably depends on their personalities. I imagine when they're older they'd probably ask?

  10. I'm a twin myself (and the younger twin) but was stereotyped as the more 'dominant' one and also the 'bookish' one whilst my sister was the more 'outgoing' one. I think it had more impact on her in terms of her confidence in her academic ability. I think labelling of any kind is difficult to avoid but really not helpful.

    Im also a middle child with an older and younger sibling - definitely stuffed then!!

    My biggest peeve (still bugs me actually) was people referring to us as 'the girls' or 'the twins'. Gah!

  11. Whistlejacket - thank you, i'm the oldest of three too and definately relate to the characteristics, i can't see myself what difference it makes to twins if parents withhold such information - it seems a little silly really but each to their own :)

  12. Platespinner - wow thanks for that perpective i am ashamed to admit i do refer to mine as "the twins" form time to time, but that's mainly due to the baby brain i am still suffering from and so i always forget their names i call them every name but their own. :)

  13. I do find birth order a fascinating subject. There's 12 years between me and my sister, so it's a little different, but some of it still comes across. My mum (much more so than my dad), still did the comparison thing, which I think is awful (though I imagine it's difficult not to). You know, 'Tasha didn't do that. Why do you?', 'Tasha loved maths, why don't you?' and so on and so on.

    Chris is the eldest of two. He can talk down to his brother, a bit, but his brother has a PhD and is a successful researcher in some chemistry field or other. Chris works with me - I set up the business and he joined in and for the most part I run it (though that's maybe more about my personality than his!).

    Out of other friends and relatives, I don't see the birth order thing always come across that much, to be honest, though all the only children I know are very successful, though have some issues with socialising (I count myself as a semi-only-child, as I was one for 12 years).

    I am determined to, at the very least, avoid the comparison issues when Eleanor comes along. But I think it may well be easier said than done.

  14. Just lost my long comment but basically really enjoyed your post and my children are all typical of their family placement. I know what you mean about the twin age thing. Friend has that problem with her twin girls, now age 10.

  15. Definitely agree with the older child. I'm the oldest of 3 and definitely felt that I was the "trial" child. Great post!

  16. Me and Daddy are the eldest and that describes me but not him. It does describe Top Ender too, but I think it is too young to see if it applies to Baby Boy!

  17. Oops - I ask the 'which one was born first' all the time...well when i meet people with twins! I'm also godmother to a twin girl (born second) and has spouted many (very badly concocted) theories on her and her sister's behaviours in relation to which was born first.
    Will stop now - thanks for the enlightenment.
    For the record i was the over-acheiving little sister in my family, so much to prove. And sadly still true!

  18. Tasha - interesting what you say about only children, my husbands one and i couldn't agree more. Hope your successful in avoiding the comparison issues with Eleanor x

    Chic Mama - Thanks for the comment, do your friends twins have siblings?

    Pippa - I'm the eldest too and i definitely relate to the traits as does Mia but your right i think you'll only be able to tell onve BB is a little older x

  19. MumsRock - Gald to be a source of enlightenment, i think my little Fi is going to be the over acheiving one too :)

  20. What a great post! I do believe that there is a natural pecking order between siblings and I also agree that it is often influenced by the parents. It is almost natural to give more responsibilities to the older one for example, resulting in making him/her the boss. I was the eldest and I remember feeling really responsible for my younger sister all the time. It took ages for this feeling to fade. My sister was the trouble maker, the attention seeker and I was the quiet and geeky one in a corner. I was often told to wait until my sister was sorted before someone would pay attention and usually by that time my parents would be either to tired or busy elsewhere to pay me proper attention. I am just hoping that I won't replicate this... only time will tell though...

  21. Perfectly happy mum - Ahh thanks hun,, i completely emathise with being left to be delt with later and i had to look out for my brother and sister too, such is the trauma of being the first born :)

  22. a really interesting post hun! my four fit that quite well especialy 3year old who is rebelious and wants to do things better than 4year old. 22month old goes with the flow and pudding is the youngest and adored by everyone. I love interesting things like this to read, that why your blog is top dog!!! xxx

    (i'm a poet and i didn't know it lol!)

  23. And don't get me started on the whole "You don't want her to be an only child, do you?" thing!!!! There are psychological good and bad points to any position in a family be it eldest, middle, twin, the one who isn't the twin, only child, youngest, the only boy, the only girl, etc, etc. What matters is that each child is loved and nurtured for who they are.

  24. Really interesting post. Of course birth order makes a difference. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you kept the birth order of twins a secret. Would you be tempted to label them in some other way? The shy one and the loud one, or the thinker and the doer, or the sporty one and the booky one?

    I think you're right that the effect is probably diluted in your family, because of the older siblings.

    When people ask you which is the older, start saying "does it matter?" and see how they react. It is good to challenge our adult desire to label children.

  25. I hate it when parents tell the oldest that they have to set a good example. I used to get that all the time. I try to never say it to S, although I do stress that B is a baby still and can't do all the rough and tumble stuff he does (although she gives it a good go!).

  26. A very interesting post. I have actually asked that question myself about twins and now you point this out, it does seem completely ridiculous. Will not do it again!

  27. We have multiples and people are always asking us who is oldest. I too wonder about the birth order question - there are only minutes between ours so I guess we will see!


I love comments!