You’ve probably heard it before. The oldest siblings are the smartest, the youngest are the most rebellious and the middle children are lost in the chaos of family life.

Angela Cesere
Courtesy of Steve Kagan
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere

The implications of birth order have long intrigued and fascinated us with their potential to define our lives and offer a way to blame our missteps on fate – and our parents.

But does birth order really define behavior?

According to more than one study, it does. A 1985 study by Lala Steelman of the University of South California and Brian Powell of Indiana University found a positive correlation between birth order and social interaction, meaning the younger siblings in a family are more likely to have better social skills, which translate into outgoingness and popularity.

A study published in June by two Norwegian researchers found that the oldest siblings in families tend to have higher IQ scores. According to the study, a negative association has been found between intelligence and birth order, meaning the oldest children in families tend to be the brightest, followed by the second oldest, then the third oldest and so on.

Psychology Prof. Brenda Volling said the negative association has less to do with birth order than it does with the way parents raise their children.

Volling said she is often questioned about birth order and its effects on personality. Although research finds a correlation between intelligence and birth order, she said it’s often has more to do with specific family environments. She said there’s no way to tell if birth order actually determines personality or success in life.

“There aren’t any hard and fast rules,” she said. “It’s very controversial.”

Volling said if parents have different attitudes toward their children – for example, if they play favorites – it can affect their children’s self-esteem, regardless of whether the child is the oldest or the youngest.

She said the greatest difference in sibling behavior is seen at a young age. Growing up, older children tend to have a better understanding of the world around them and often act as leaders, teaching their younger siblings. Volling said this gap narrows as children age until it’s virtually nonexistent.

Bob Zajonc, a University professor emeritus who is now a professor at Stanford University, said there are certain characteristics in children that can be reliably linked to birth order.

“The first-borns do better than second-borns, the second-borns do better than third-borns,” he said. “These differences are small, but they’re certainly consistent.”

So statistically, the stereotypes can mostly hold their own. But since we all know the studies can’t always tell the whole story, The Statement looked at the sibling standing of a few University professors and alumni to see how the theories held up in practice.

English Prof. Ralph Williams has been teaching at the University since 1970. Famous throughout campus for his theatrical lectures on Shakespeare and Dante, it wouldn’t be hard to see Williams fitting into the role of the popular and socially savvy younger sibling.

Williams was the youngest of five children, although he was raised as an only child by his aunt and uncle for several years. One of his siblings died at a young age. The others went on to have successful careers. Williams’s oldest brother changed his career two or three times, staying for the longest time as a therapist and the head of three hospitals in Florida. The second oldest works in the oil industry, overseeing an offshore drilling project in the Pacific. And his sister was a psychiatric nurse before starting her own publishing firm.

Williams himself attended Andrews University for his undergraduate degree, then came to the University of Michigan for his doctorate. He taught at Cornell University before returning here, where he’s had an illustrious tenure.

The Statement isn’t sure about the IQ of his oldest brother, but we’re fairly confident he doesn’t have the same flair for the great books.

University alum Gerald Ford was born in 1913 in Nebraska as Leslie Lynch King, Jr. His parents separated two weeks after his birth, and his mother moved him to Grand Rapids.

His mother married a man named Gerald Ford two years later, and he adopted her son. They officially changed his name in 1935. Ford was the oldest of five half-siblings, although he grew up with only three of them – the sons of his mother’s second marriage. His biological father also had three children after his second marriage.

After graduating from the University, Ford went on to Yale Law School and, after serving in the Navy, eventually was nominated to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1948. After a stint as House minority leader, he became the vice president of the United States after Spiro Agnew resigned, and then president after Richard Nixon resigned.

Ford’s three younger half-brothers all went on to have prosperous careers, but if they envied their eldest brother, it was certainly justified. Thomas Ford also went into politics as a state representative from 1964 to 1972. Afterward, he was the legislative audit coordinator for the Michigan Legislature appropriations committees. His second brother, Richard Ford, took over the family business – Ford Paint and Varnish Company. James Ford worked as an optometrist.

Gerald Ford lived the longest of the four Ford brothers.

Law School alum Ann Coulter went on after graduation to make a name for herself by condemning liberals everywhere. Famous for her fiery quips that leave audiences scratching their heads and wondering if, in fact, she really did just say that, Coulter has enjoyed a very profitable career as a columnist and legal correspondent.

Coulter is the youngest of three – she has two older brothers. They say that the youngest siblings also are hungriest for attention. But not even that fully explains her telling disabled Vietnam vets and Sept. 11 widows they’re bringing the country down.

Michael Phelps, Olympic swimmer extraordinaire, was the youngest of three. Both of his older sisters began swimming at a young age, and Phelps grew up watching them practice. His oldest sister eventually stopped swimming, but his second sister tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996. She didn’t qualify, and she eventually had to quit because of injuries.

With blatant disregard for birth order stereotypes, Phelps went on to compete in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Phelps came to the University in 2005 to work with Coach Bob Bowman. His degree is in sports management and communication.

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