Why Birth Order Complicates Setting the Table

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The dance occurs nightly. “L,” I call to my youngest son, “come set the table. Dinner’s nearly ready.” After one or two summons, he arrives with a big smile.

“You called?” His eyes glimmer with mirth.

“Time to set the table,” he’s reminded. A pause ensues as if he’s trying to translate the message into his native tongue. The pause lengthens, and when he meets my eyes, his grin has broadened.
“Cool Papa Bell,” L says referring to the all-time great Negro League baseball player, “once stole home plate from first base.” I’m reminded that he’s evading something, but he’s so genuine, and I do love sports. Indeed, stealing home from third is quite a feat. But to do it from first base…. My musings are turning toward sports, away from household chores. Then, I snap out of it.

Ever wondered about birth order and how it impacts your family?

“L, the table,” frustration seeping into my reminder.

My boy nods, raising his hands both in surrender and in a calming gesture. I start to relax as he moves toward the cabinet to fetch the plates. Then he spins and begins a goofy dance with the counter. Hands on his head and still smiling, he wiggles his skinny hips.

“L,” I say with conviction, “SET THE TABLE!!!!!”

“Alright,” he says in a falsely soft voice, “no need to shout.” Smiling still, he gets two plates and traipses toward the table and puts them down carefully.

“That’s good, Luka,” I say trying to keep my voice steady, “but you forgot to put down the placemats, and there are four of us who eat here.”

He nods at me. I got this, Dad. He swivels his head toward my wife. “Hey Mom,” he asks with wide grin, “do you think there are grey wolves living on Mount Rainier?”

“L, SET THE FRICKIN’ TABLE!” I roar. I want to throttle him.

The Psychology of Birth Order

Such frustrating behavior could drive a father crazy. Understanding L’s motivations, I decided, would make his table-setting shenanigans less irritating. Alfred Adler (1870-1937), a Freudian psychiatrist, developed the Psychology of Birth Order in which he postulates that when one is born has an impact on one’s personality.

Could L’s being youngest explain his behavior?

Adler describes the personality of the first-born, second-born, and youngest. (He also considered the only child and twins, but that did not apply to my family). According to Adler, the first-born is reliable, conscientious, structured, cautious, controlling,and achieving. The oldest child develops the above parent-pleasing traits in an attempt to regain the undivided attention that he enjoyed before his sibling’s birth. Adler’s theory is not absolute.

My eldest is not at all cautious, for instance, but the wisdom of Adler’s paradigm still resonates. My oldest boy is very structured, conscientious, and high-achieving although I am pretty sure that he would not say that he acts thus in an effort to gain my wife’s and my undivided attention.

But as to my younger boy and his table setting— has Adler any thoughts?

He identified the following characteristics in the second born child: people-pleasing, somewhat rebellious, good friend, social and peace-maker. Youngest child characteristics include fun-loving, uncomplicated, manipulative, outgoing, attention-seeking and self-centered.

As with my older boy, my youngest does not conform totally to Adler’s traits. He is neither attention-seeking nor self-centered. Elsewhere, he conforms quite nicely to Adler’s description. He is somewhat rebellious (i.e. table setting) and has formed many strong friendships. L is social and helps to solve problems in school. True to the theory of the Psychology of Birth Order, my youngest is fun-loving, outgoing and can be manipulative. His approach to table setting backs this up nicely. He moulded the situation to get out of his task, but did so with a smile and an array of jokes.

Adler seems right on here, but I feel unsettled by the notion.

Being manipulative has a dark connotation that seems too harsh for L. He’s not a sinister puppet master pulling strings, just a smiling boy avoiding a tedious task. I’ll throw a bone Adler’s way and stick with the term manipulation.

Luckily, the Austrian psychiatrist has an explanation.

Due to his birth order, the youngest is least capable and experienced. To compensate for this fact, he develops social skills that allows him to get others to do things for him. A simplification to be sure, but the last couple of nights, during our table setting dance, I’ve looked upon L, bemused. “That’s my second born/youngest,” I’ve thought with a knowing smile.

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One comment

  1. I always think birth-order theories are interesting. I can kind of see the concept of the “oldest child develop[ing] the above parent-pleasing traits in an attempt to regain the undivided attention that he enjoyed before his sibling’s birth” present in my son, although I personally think (form my own observations) that how close together your kids are in age also plays into and affects birth order theory. Interesting though, thanks for sharing!

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