Firstborns could have the edge

How parents raise kids depends on birth order, author says, and that makes all the difference

Family Matters

January 26, 2003|By Aline Mendelsohn | Aline Mendelsohn,Special to the Sun

Hillary Clinton and Rush Limbaugh, Cher and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Oh, yeah, and half of all U.S. presidents.

Like them or hate them, they all have one thing in common: All were firstborn children.

And according to author Tom Connellan, that's a big deal.

Connellan, a business consultant, insists that firstborn children and only children are given an edge in society. If managers, teachers and parents treat everyone as firstborns, more people will succeed, he says.

In his forthcoming book Bringing Out the Best in Others! ($19.95, Bard Press), Connellan outlines the three ways firstborns are treated differently from other kids:

Parents often set higher expectations,

demand greater accountability, and

provide more feedback.

Those factors are the keys, he says, to helping others succeed.

Firstborns are often expected to behave more maturely. Sometimes they even become surrogate parents. For example, when firstborn children take their younger siblings to a movie, they are most likely to be responsible for the money and the cell phone.

Children tend to live up to their parents' expectations, Connellan says.

Because firstborn children are the oldest, parents hold them more accountable for their actions, often admonishing them by saying, "You should know better than that."

Accountability "can mean a brutal assessment of someone," says Connellan, who lives in Orlando, Fla. But "Failure is a profound way of learning," he adds. "Sometimes kids need to learn how to fail."

Finally, new parents tend to "practice" on their firstborns, thus providing them with more constructive and consistent feedback.

Some evidence from research supports Connellan's premise. Studies over the years have shown that firstborns are natural leaders.

"As parents, our firstborns are our guinea pigs," says Kevin Leman, a Tucson, Ariz., psychologist and author of The New Birth Order Book. "By the time you reach the fifth child, you grab some food, throw it on the floor and yell, 'dinner.' "

But Leman cautions parents, teachers and managers against treating everyone the same.

"The key to bringing out the best in people is to make sure you have a team, and a team represents different people," he says.

Leman recommends trying to see through the eyes of the individual.

While some people are "carrot seekers" needing sustained feedback, he says, others resent superiors constantly leaning over their shoulders.

Children should be dealt with according to their personalities, concurs Cliff Isaacson, a Des Moines, Iowa, counselor and author of the book Birth Order Plus.

Issacson has reservations about a society full of firstborns.

"A greater proportion of firstborn and only children will make us a society of flaw-pickers, yuppies and achievers," Isaacson says.

But not everyone buys into birth-order theory. In the early '80s, Swiss researchers Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst compared birth-order theory with astrology, refuting it as a "sheer waste of time and money."

Connellan, though, is undeterred. On a broad scale, Connellan hopes his book will "shift the way things are in this country," he says. "You do that one person at a time."

Aline Mendelsohn is a report-er for The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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