A few days ago we were having dinner with friends when the conversation turned to a mutual acquaintance. "I find her very difficult to like," one friend said. "She's very spoilt…"
"Self-absorbed," another agreed. "She doesn't share, she's opinionated and she never listens to other people's views…"
And then the killer line. "Of course, it's not surprising because she's an only child…"
There was a silence for a moment and then my husband said: "Nicola is an only child."
Another silence. Then lots of people talking at once: "Oh well, you're the exception that proves the rule…"
It was lucky they said that because otherwise they would have been wearing the delicious apricot and vanilla pudding I had made rather than eating it, and if that's spoilt behaviour then I put my hand up.
It wasn't the first time I had come up against prejudice against only children but it was the most blatant example and it certainly made me think. As a writer I have sometimes used birth order when I've been fleshing out my characters. The heroine of my next book, Whisper of Scandal, is the eldest of three girls and makes a spectacular escape from caring for her younger sisters by running off with an out-and-out cad. In one of my early books there was some vicious sibling rivalry going on between two sisters.
Generalisations about birth order include:
The most responsiblity is given to the eldest child. They develop strong leadership qualities. However they also have to bear the brunt of strong parental supervision and heavy parental expectations. Most family photo albums apparently feature twice as many pictures of the eldest child as of their siblings, particularly when they are babies or toddlers. They are the trailblazers. Famous firstborn children include Winston Churchill, EM Forster, Danielle Steel, – and David Copperfield.
The middle child or children can get squeezed out. They are born into a competitive atmosphere and often behave in the opposite way to the eldest. If the eldest is a high-achiever they may be a trouble-maker, choosing to make their mark in unconventional ways. if the eldest is academic, they will turn to another area in which to excel. They can also be the peace-maker and the one with the most friends. Famous middle children include Princess Diana, Henry VIII and Bill Gates.
The youngest is supposedly indulged and spoiled, the baby of the family who can get away with all the things that their siblings could not. I found it quite difficult to find a list of famous youngest children when I was searching, which was a bit puzzling. The whole birth order thing seems to be skewed to proving its own point ie that it's the firstborn who become famous.
So what do you think? Are you an only, a firstborn or one of a big family? How has that affected you? What about twins? And are theories like birth order useful tools for a writer in developing character or simply too stereotypical?
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