All posts by Jean

Sibling Influences

When children of the same family have completely different personalities, people tend to comment, “But they were raised by the same parents.” I understand this concept, but in reality, no one is raised by the exact same parents. You see, as a person ages, they change. Therefore, the person you are when the first child is born is not the same person you are when the second child is born. Add in the fact that each child is born with a distinct personality and you get parents who react differently to the different personalities.

In my own birth family, I was the third and last child born. The mother and father who raised me were not the same people who raised my older siblings.

When my older sister was born, my mother was not quite 21 and my father had just turned 24. They had only been married a couple of years and they were living in a rental house in Wichita, Kansas, while our father worked for the highway system. As the adored first child, every stage of my sister’s development was applauded and recorded in her well-documented baby book. I don’t think there was too much stress in the family when my sister was first born, if for no other reason than my parents were still in their honeymoon phase.

When my older brother was born, my folks had taken a leap and were living and working on our father’s family farm. The relationship between our father and grandfather was strained, which made working together a difficult challenge. Money was scarce and the work was hard. The farm house they lived in was not in the best shape and a lot of times dinner was whatever our father could shoot. As the first, and only, boy, our mother adored him, and despite the time and effort it took to be a farm wife in that day and age, she eked out all the time she could to document his developmental stages as well as she could. I think it’s pretty fair to say that things were pretty stressful in the family for my brother’s first few years.

By the time I came along three and a half years after my brother, our father had just started working for the company he would spend his career working for. He traveled a lot, usually 5 days a week. Mom was, much like most of the women of her generation, a stay at home wife and mother. She struggled with that role and all the times she had to “do it all” on her own since Daddy was gone so much. Raising three children basically by herself was really not what she had signed up for when she said, “I do.” My busy mom did her best, but there is little documentation of my childhood, which as a parent of three I now understand.

I decided to do a little research and see if I was the only one who had come to this conclusion about siblings. Sure enough, there are many theories to explain the differences in personalities between siblings from the same family. The one that I found that confirmed my theory was on The NY Times parenting blog. In this piece, there are three common theories about the personality differences in siblings, and number two was the one I’d observed.

“The second theory, that of a non-shared environment, argues that we only seem to be “growing up in the same family as our siblings,” when in fact we are being raised in measurably different households. We experience the same events at different ages; we have different numbers of older and younger siblings; we are born to different parents — older or younger, wealthier or struggling, happier or less so, more experienced, less energetic.”

 Another theory that I am a great believer in is how much birth order effects personalities. As I’ve gone through life, I can tell more about a person from their birth order than any other conventional personality diagnosis. According at an article on Parents.com, there are pretty definite personality traits that align with birth order:

As the leader of the pack, firstborns often tend to be: Reliable; Conscientious; Structured; Cautious; Controlling; Achievers. This description fits my oldest sibling to a “T.” She is most comfortable in structured situations and she is definitely the most motivated to achieve goals. I am also very aware that as the oldest she always felt a lot of pressure to parent her siblings, to the best of her ability, when my parents were occasionally distracted while dealing with their issues.

In general, middle children tend to possess the following characteristics: People-pleasers; Somewhat rebellious; Thrives on friendships; Has large social circle; Peacemaker. This one doesn’t fit my middle sibling nearly as well. My brother is neither a people-pleaser nor is he necessarily a peacemaker. I believe he was more influenced by being the only boy in the family than he was by being the middle child

The baby of the family tends to be: Fun-loving; Uncomplicated; Manipulative; Outgoing; Attention-seeker; Self-centered. Damn. This definition doesn’t make me, the baby, sound like a particularly nice person, but there are definitely parts of it that fit. I am outgoing and a relatively uncomplicated fun-lover who likes attention, but I hope I’m no longer self-centered.

Which of these childhood influences dominates a person’s personality? According to the same article on Parents.com:

“Though peers, siblings, genes, and circumstance all indubitably play into how a child’s temperament develops, “I think the parents still are the major influencing factors because, truthfully, the first year of life is the bonding with the primary caretaker that impacts upon self-confidence, trust, the ability to interact with another person,” says therapist Wallace… Instead, it’s the experiences shared by child and parental figure that leaves the lasting impression.”

This brings me back to my original hypotheses: A parent does not remain a static, constant, personality. Neither does a child. As people grow and evolve, their thoughts and actions change, which means how you interact with people changes. Sometimes it takes having your own children to understand where your parents were coming from when you were growing up. What I am very aware of is that every parent, and every child, does their best with the tools and personalities they are given.

 *All of the above statements about my family history are based on my and my sister’s recollections of family stories we heard growing up. In the past, I would’ve called my mom or dad and asked them to verify or correct my memories. They are both now gone, and even though it’s been a few years, it still felt strange not having them to go to for their memories. So, any factual errors in the chronology of our family life are entirely mine.