Social Question

Seaofclouds's avatar

Do you think the number of children in a family affects the children's personalities and behavioral traits?

Asked by Seaofclouds (23024points) October 8th, 2012

I was having a discussion with a co-worker a few weeks ago about how many children we each wanted. We talked a little bit about people we know with 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. children/siblings, how they “turned out”, and why we wouldn’t want a certain number of children ourselves. We both noticed some patterns with the people we knew (which were different people as I’m new to this area) in regards to a certain child (say child #3 of 3) having certain behavioral traits and personality compared to the other two children.

I’m curious to see if other people have noticed other patterns as well and if so, to see if their patterns match the ones we noticed. Also, I’m interested in any research that’s been done as I haven’t had a chance to look into it yet. I’ve read a lot of information on birth order, but not really anything about the number of children on it’s own. Does any of this have any bearing on how many children you would want or specifically not want to have?

I will share what my co-worker and I noticed as part of the discussion after some other’s have had a chance to respond.

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32 Answers

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Can you give me a few to think about it?

zenvelo's avatar

There is not that much to birth order, there are good and bad things about each. There have been conflicting studies on the birth order outcomes.

There do seem to be some byproducts of larger families, but not that can be said about all the kids. There is too much as timing between kids and the mix of siblings. It seems easier for a kid from a large family to be a “lost child” and another to be the “family mascot’. But it is not predictable to one child or another.

JLeslie's avatar

To some extent I do think it affects our personalities, but it is only one of many factors. Families with three, the middle child does seem to have middle child syndrome a lot of the time. Although, how many years between children also affects a lot. A child born more than 5 years after the last one born before them, that child has a lot of “only child” traits, or if another child is then born after can have a lot of first born traits. So the last born or middle in that case can escape middle child syndrome and have other problems. LOL.

augustlan's avatar

I’m not sure how (or even if) it affected our children, but I can tell you that going from two children to three children was a big change. We had 3 kids in four years, and that third baby created a different dynamic in the household… suddenly, we parents were outnumbered! “You handle that one, and I’ll handle this one” no longer meant everyone was equally covered. Since they were all so young/close in age, they all needed quite a bit of parental attention. At times one or the other of them probably wasn’t getting it, I’m sure.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that it affected their personalities, because our kids’ personalities were very evident right from the beginning, and haven’t changed much over time. They really do seem to have been born with them. I could see it affecting their behavioral traits, but how would I really know the difference if it did?

One interesting thing I’d heard many times has proven true for us… when 3 kids are together, two of them tend to gang up on the third (the ‘gang’ and the ‘outsider’ change, though. It’s not always the same two against one.) When only two of my children are present (ANY two of them, it doesn’t matter who is absent!), they get along much better.

JLeslie's avatar

@augustlan I was just talking about that regarding young children, friends, that when there is three a lot of the time it is two and then one left out. They are all friends, and pair up and play nicely all the time, but then add the third on the same play date and things can go south. I had not thought of that among siblings.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

The number of children may influence the personality to some degree. For example, being an only child will most likely net the full attention of both parents vs. multiple siblings closely spaced vs. years apart.

Even if it does play a small role, I don’t buy into the stereotypes of First Born, Middle Child and Baby. There are too many other factors involved. The biggest one is nature. We seem to come out of the womb with different personality traits. Another is the age gap between the children. A third is gender.

If we look for these stereotypes by how the children are arranged in age order, we are likely to perceive them, whether they are there or not. I can think of way too many examples where the labels don’t fit the person.

Sunny2's avatar

It isn’t the family order alone that affect kids. It’s also the personalities of the different kids, the roles the parents assume and their personalities. Making generalities is fun, but not proof of anything. In my family, I was the oldest and the prima donna. My brother was much more easy going and conciliatory. The third sib was an up and down character, more because of his negative relationship with our father than his rank in the family.

lightsourcetrickster's avatar

I’m of the opinion that the number of children will influence the personality to a degree. It’s not just about parental interaction on a single child to parent basis, but also how the children (assuming more than one in any given family) interact with each other. There are significant multiple factors at play with any family consisting of more than one child – and it’s not just limited to how a child develops inside the family, but also how that child develops further under the guidance of agents of social control outside the home.

Below follows a paragraph obtained from a dissertation that I think would be enough to indicate what I mean by social control and what it is. It has been slightly edited.

”....Social control, or custom, comes from the inter­active relations in which a person engages (this would include, but not be limited to children in this particular case). The people with whom he/she must interact are the most important for the regulation of his behavior in the ordinary course of affairs. Thus the people he meets in the course of earning a living, raising a family, and living in a certain area are the people with whom he must get along. If his behavior is disturbing or unpredictable to these people, that is, if it constitutes a problem for them, they will usually respond by attempting to get him to follow the patterns they have come to expect are “typical” of him or of properly demeaned people “like” him, which fit into their institutionalized relationships without disturbing the routine and un­attended nature of the relationships.”

Let’s not forget that personality doesn’t just boil down to one or two aspects of who we are and what we become as types of people, but it also comes down to behavioral traits too, which are shaped by those we have to interact with in our more immediate environments – from family home to school to whatever other environments of interaction a child is likely to be subjected to. I think it’s more than possible that having more than one child in a family is bound to have some affect on a child’s personality, but so too is it’s upbringing and how that child lives on a day to day basis..

I personally do not agree with the idea that we are born out of the womb with different personalities as if they are already built-in. The personality is not DNA, it is not hard-wired, it is learned and altered and re-learned and altered again. We learn and adjust according to what we learn in order to become who we are in terms of personality.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@lightsourcetrickster I don’t think that personalities are passed on by DNA either. Nurturing, by family and societal factors also play a role. Yet, talk to any parent, and they will tell you that there are certain personality traits that have shown up at a very early age that weren’t learned.

fluthernutter's avatar

Probably. Size affects dynamic. How could it not affect you?

But to the point of predictability? Probably not. There are just too many factors to consider.

Personally, I want to have three kids. One is too lonely. And two is too neat. I want things to be a bit messy. There’s a certain amount of communal negotiation that I’d like for them to experience. Good and bad.

I want them to have siblings, not just a brother or a sister. I want them to feel as if they belong to a tribe created around the culture of their shared childhood.

I don’t like how people assume that I’m done having kids because I one of each. I’m not collecting baseball cards.

Seek's avatar

I think it’s more how the parents treat the kids as individuals, more than the birth order itself. Now whether there’s a majority rule on how kids of each birth order will be treated, I don’t know.

I grew up in a 3 kid home, and I was the eldest. Doted on by our father, despised by my mother. My brother was the boy and could do no wrong in either parent’s eyes. My sister never really knew our father, but she was the much babied favourite of our stepfather. My brother got a hard time from the stepfather, and I had quite a few years of Cinderella training from mother and stepfather.

All in all, if you were to describe each of us in one word, you’d get me: captious, my brother: effusive (he takes everything to an extreme. Quite the exaggerator), my sister: coddled.

JLeslie's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer @lightsourcetrickster I think it’s both, genetics and environmental influences, like almost everything else. Why would it be odd to think that some of our brains wiring has to do with genetics and a child be born towards certain tendencies? Our brain is formed by our DNA, and then within the contraints of the possibility for our particular brain the environment helps wire it.

I think IQ is like that. For instance I think people are born with a range of possibility for IQ, let’s say a 20 point spread, and then environment that very much nutures it you get towards the higher end, one that is void of enhancing IQ you get the lower end. One person might have the chance at an IQ from 120–140, another 80–100.

Even diseases the same thing. One person might be genetically predisposed to lung cancer the other not. They both smoke since the age of 15 and at age 50 the one genetically predisposed gets cancer, the other one lives to 80 years old and finally dies of Alzheimers.

I think personality is somewhat the same. Predisposition and a range of possibilities for the individual. That’s my theory anyway. I would never use hard wired though. I believe the brain is able to rewire and make paths, and in fact science is proving that.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I’m the oldest male. I have the strongest personality in the family.

wundayatta's avatar

One odd thing I’ve noticed is that children from larger families tend to be Catholic. I’m not sure how that works. Perhaps having a large number of children influences your religious beliefs in some mysterious way.

Another funny thing. If you are from a large family, you seem to be more likely to be Irish or Italian ancestry. It’s hard to imagine how being the seventh or eighth kid in the family could somehow send you back in time and change your country of origin, but I can’t think of how else to explain it.

augustlan's avatar

@wundayatta I have a feeling you’re being facetious, but just in case you aren’t…
Irish & Italian -> Catholic -> no birth control -> big families

zenvelo's avatar

@wundayatta @augustlan That was true of us Catholics up until the mid ‘70s. Now, most American Catholics believe in using birth control despite whatever the Church says.

The big families now are generally Mormon or Mennonite.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

And then there are the Duggars. :)

@JLeslie This could be wrong, but doesn’t DNA have to do with physical characteristics and the potential for some health conditions? As for IQ, are you aware of a study that shows that DNA is linked to it? If so, I’d love to see it. It could provide more insight on the subject.

All I know through reading and experience is that children’s personalities develop based upon nature and nurture. It’s not one or the other.

JLeslie's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer I don’t mind looking up studies, but I need to ask you a question, because I am a little confused. You say personalities are nature and nuture. Nature is genetics, so I don’t really understand what you are saying. Every part of us developed in utero because of what our DNA dictated, including our brains.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@JLeslie Thank you for asking for clarification. I don’t know what the answer is to the “nature” part of my statement. All I know is that parents often question where a child’s personality traits stem from. For example, why has my niece been so obsessed with appearance since she was old enough to look in the mirror? It was a mystery to her parents. Why did I tell my parents at the age of two that I could bathe myself and when I was ready for bed when this wasn’t first prodded by them? Why is one child competitive from very early on when its parents aren’t? (This example comes from a parent of an only child.)

Is that nature or nurture? It doesn’t seem like the latter, and yet it also doesn’t seem like personality traits that would be passed on through DNA. Does this help explain where I am trying to go?

JLeslie's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer I know there have been studies of very very young children, it might have been infants, I don’t remember, where they find difference between the sexes in how they react to certain things. My memory is poor on the specifics. The study set out to evaluate if boys and girls are different in personality and what they are attracted to from an age that seemed unlikely influenced by socialization. I remember the study concluded there are what seems to be inherent differences. It seemed children are born a certain way. I’ll do some googling and see what I find.

In my mind nature is DNA, it is synonomous in thos type of discussion. I don’t understand why you see it as two different things. I am not saying you are incorrect, not arguing per se, or trying to say you are incorrect, more just stating how I view it.

What is nature from? How would you define nature in nature vs. nuture?

Seaofclouds's avatar

Thanks for all of the great answers so far everyone and keep them coming. You guys have given me a lot more to think about in regards to this. My co-worker and I mostly hit on a lot of the points mentioned here already, but one other thing we noticed with the people we know is that child #3 of 3 seems to be a lot less involved with things than their older siblings. For example, they are less involved with family functions and seem to have less motivation (for education and career types of things) compared to their older siblings. Now, these are all families with children pretty close in age, so it would be interesting to see someone that had a big gap in between the children some where. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with how things were handled in their family.

Personally, I’ve been beginning to wonder if it has more with being the last child, rather than just #3 of 3. As a mother that is possibly done having children (we are still trying to decide), I know I feel like I am taking in a lot more of the little things that my daughter is doing right now since she may be my last and I won’t have these experiences again. The feeling of being “done” definitely seems to have an affect on me right now and I can easily see how it could affect parenting decisions in the long term if one let it.

wundayatta's avatar

What? @augustlan? Are you sure it isn’t the other way around?

Big families—> no birth control—> Catholic—> Irish & Italian?

I was so sure that was the causal link.

@zenvelo I was born in the mid 50’s. Most of the people I know were born in that era. That is the time when big families had no birth control, so they all turned Catholic and Irish and Italian. Seriously dude, you should study some history. Just because it’ happened before 1980 didn’t mean it didn’t happen. Causality, you know! ;-)

JLeslie's avatar

@Seaofclouds I don’t think of third children of three that way. Although, as I sit here I am trying to remember who I know that is one of three or parents of three to have more of an opinion. My husband it third of three, but he is almost 6 years younger then the second born, so my husband has only qualities. He is the only sibling of the three to have a college degree, he actually has his masters. He is the most ambitious, the most responsible and the most future oriented of all of them. But, one example does not make for generalizations. Funny, most of my friends are one of two, or four, and one of my closest friends one of six. And yes, she is Catholic @wundayatta.

wundayatta's avatar

@JLeslie I’m just being silly. But I’m sure I could run a quick crosstab on the General Social Survey and see what the average family size is by religio.n over various decades.

JLeslie's avatar

@wundayatta I know you are being silly. Me too. But, if it doesn’t take a lot effort do it. I am curious. Is it just for the US? My MIL is 1 of 10 – Catholic. However, my FIL is 1 of 8 – Jewish. But, they are in their 70’s and Mexican.

@Seaofclouds Another observation about birth order (and maybe how many children is interwoven somehow) is if there are two kids and both are girls, the youngest almost always thinks the older sister is more beautiful and the younger sister tends to be more insecure. I think it is purely age related, because the older sister goes through puberty first, starts wearing make up first, starts doing her hair in a more complicated style first, and dressing in a more sophisticated way first, so the younger girl looks up to her sister and all the pretty adult looking things she starts wearing and doing. I don’t know what happens when there are three and four kids though with that sort of thing.

I wonder if it also matters when the parents started having babies? Most people with 6 children started having babies at age 19. A gross overgeneralization, and totally invented in my mind, but I bet there is some statistical truth to large families starting when parents are relatively young. So, how many children, birth order, and what age a parent is when a specific child is born. Just thinking out loud.

zenvelo's avatar

@wundayatta did you even read what I said? I said that was true of Catholics before the mid 70s. I was born in the fifties too, and went to school with lots of kids from big families. They’d take up a whole damn pew at Mass. But very few of the Catholic kids I went to school with have had more than two or three.

JLeslie's avatar

@zenvelo My girlfriend, 1 of 6, felt a little odd man out that she only had two, because so many families at her kids Catholic school have more than 2, and the Priest who was in her church before the current on spoke of having large families more than once. But, most of my friends who are Catholic have 2 kids. I think the point is if there is 4 or more children in a family, chances are they are Catholic. Not that Catholics always have 4 or more children.

wundayatta's avatar

@zenvelo I gotcha. You’re saying that decade of birth causes family size! I’m totally on board with that!

I was born in the ‘50s. Which caused big families in Catholics. So those are the ones I know. I don’t know families from subsequent eras. ;-)

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@JLeslie What is nature from? How would you define nature in nature vs. nuture? Honestly? I don’t know. When it comes to developing a personality, “Nurture”, to me, means outside influence. “Nature” is a whole other matter. Physical characteristics can be supported by genetics. That is “Nature”. Can personalities be linked to something passed on by ancestors?

@Seaofclouds …it would be interesting to see someone that had a big gap in between the children some where. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with how things were handled in their family. It does seem to have a lot to do with family dynamics.

I come from a family of four children. The first two are 14 and 13 years older than me, and #3 is six years older. They were all married and having children by the time I was 10–19 years old. I feel very lucky to have them as siblings and surrogate parental figures. That includes their spouses.

The only con of being the ‘baby’ was still being considered the baby in their eyes as I grew up. It was a long, subtle battle to achieve their seeing me as an adult that that could survive without their unsolicited input. We were separated by geographical distance as the career progressed. I also suspect part of that had to do with the fact that I didn’t marry and have children at an earlier age like they did. It created less of of a bond due to the lack of similar topics to discuss.

The pros though are many. There seems to be much less competition between siblings that are further spaced apart. From what I have witnessed in both my family and others, they are more willing to help each other out. And I feel very lucky to have had three siblings and three in-laws that introduced me to experiences that my parents never would have. They did it out of love and not duty.

My advice is not to worry about an age gap or stereotypical personality outcome by rank in the immediate family order. Those factors don’t matter. What does is the love and interest invested in the new child.

JLeslie's avatar

@Pied_Pfeffer Well, as I said nature to me is heredity and genes. We are what our brains tell us to be, the brain controls everything. Our brain forms from the genetic coding from our parents. But, the brain is pliable also, able to change and “grow” as we interact with our environment, but inly change as much as our genetic code allows for. For instance a preson can grow taller with good nutrition, and not quite as tall if they are missing or only get small amounts of some nutrients. But, no matter how good the nutrition is they won’t grow to 9 feet tall.

Here is an article discussing behavior and nature vs. nuture.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@JLeslie Thank you for finding that article and sharing it. Some of the information is obviously genetically related (Nature). Your example of height is one.

A few of the examples, like the twins separated at birth who grew up to both marry women named Linda, divorce them and later marry women named Betty, is a fascinating coincidence. I almost stopped reading at that point. There is no way that is based on genetics. There have been several studies on twins separated at birth, and they all seem to focus on the similarities. At least, I don’t recall reading any reports on differences.

What is interesting about the article is the bit about finding a connection to thrill-seekers may be linked to Chromosome 11. To me, thrill-seeking is a personality characteristic. It can be a personality trait that shows up in one child and not another. It might not be a characteristic that is acted upon by either parent. This would explain why parents would look at their child and say, “Whose baby is this?”

Still, there is no concrete proof yet, as far as I know and based upon what that article states. Either way, it would be interesting to find out if there is. (Note: The article must be fairly old. It references “By the year 2005, scientists are expected to have…”)

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