How Birth Order Affects Juvenile Delinquency Term Paper

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Birth Order and Juvenile Delinquency

Psychologists have long studied the effects of birth order on a person's personality. Sigmund Freud, for example, believed that "the position of a child in the family order is a factor of extreme importance in determining the shape of his later life" (cited in Sulloway 1996: 468n).

The rest of social sciences, however, have been slower to accept such a sociobiological approach, preferring instead to explain social attitudes as a result of determinants like race, gender, age or class.

This paper examines whether this sociobiological approach holds true in the field of juvenile crime. Specifically, the paper examines whether birth order is a significant determinant in whether or not a young person commits crimes and in the rates of juvenile recidivism.

To examine this relationship, this paper takes an interdisciplinary approach to the issue of birth order and juvenile delinquency, drawing on diverse literature from fields including psychology, law, criminology and sociology. The extent of birth order on youth crime is explored through a critical survey and integration of current research on the various determinants of juvenile delinquency.

The first part of the paper examines the literature on how birth order affects the general attitudes and behavior of people, with a special focus on children and teens. The next section relates these findings to statistical data regarding the determinants of youth crime and recidivism.

In the third section, the paper examines the flaws behind many of the studies that ascribe inordinate importance to birth order. Some of these studies, for example, suffer from flawed techniques while others do not adequately account for the effects of socio-economic class or gender. In the last section, this paper concludes that given the conflicting evidence regarding birth order's effects on a person's attitudes and behavior, birth order alone is not a reliable determinant of a person's propensity to become involved in juvenile crime.

This study was limited by the lack of information regarding birth order in the many statistical data regarding juvenile crime. For future studies, it would be interesting to see if such data could be obtained, and if the effects of birth order mute or enhance other known determinants of criminal behavior, such as socioeconomic status, education and race.

Birth Order and Social Behavior

Until recently, social scientists generally did not give much importance to the effects of birth order on a person's social development. While conventional wisdom held that adults who were firstborns are generally more conservative, more likely to save money and more responsible, little empirical research was conducted to see if these claims held up to quantitative study.

However, recent studies like Frank J. Sulloway's Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives have ignited interest in the relationship between birth order and social attitudes. In the book, Sulloway posits a strong relationship between birth order and a wide array of social attitudes. In general, Sulloway contends that firstborns are generally more inclined to support the status quo, while later-borns are more inclined to be rebels and to agitate for change. In fact, Sulloway claims that "the effects of birth order transcend gender, social class, race, nationality, and for the last five centuries, time" (1996: 356).

Sulloway maintains that the effects of birth order do not stem merely from biology. Rather, he ascribes this to children's innate tendency to develop attitudes and personalities that are best suited for maximizing the resources that they get from their parents. Since siblings must compete for their parents' attentions, they carve out their own "family niches" relative to their brothers and sisters, a niche that is often defined by birth order (Sulloway 1996: 48).

Meri Wallace, a child development expert, locates the social construction of birth order roles on the part of the parents. According to Wallace, many of the characteristics resulting from a child's birth order and family position actually stem from their early relationship with their parents (Wallace 1999:7).

The following sections examine how these interrelated factors result in different roles and behaviors for firstborn, middle-born, youngest and only children.

Firstborn Children

Many studies have shown that firstborn children have a greater tendency than their later-born counterparts to be conformist and oriented towards authority and responsibility (Moore & Cox, 1990: 19).

The strong support of firstborns for existing authority have been observed as early as 1928, when Freudian psychologist Alfred Adler theorized that firstborn children are often exposed to the company of adults much earlier than their laterborn counterparts (1928: 14).

Similarly, Wallace believes that firstborns benefit strongly from being the sole focus of their parent's attention prior to the birth of the next sibling. Typically, firstborns often feel a strong identification with their parents. Since many first-time parents dive eagerly into their new caretaker role, a role that their firstborn children easily imbibe (Wallace 1999: 15).

According to Sulloway's quantitative findings, these conformist tendencies and identification with adults result in more conservative social attitudes. For example, firstborns were more likely to harbor traditional beliefs about gender than laterborns. As an example, he notes that Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly are firstborn women who lobbied against many important legislation for women's rights. On the other hand, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many other suffragettes were predominantly laterborn children (Sulloway 1996: 154-158).

Sulloway also contends that firstborns are "particularly inclined toward racism" (1996: 152). Historically, firstborn children also benefited from primogeniture. This factor may have also contributed to a firstborn's tendency towards conservatism because they were bound to their ancestral properties.

In more modern studies, more firstborns than laterborns were more likely to have voted for former President George Bush in the 1992 presidential elections (Frees et al., 1999).


Many people are familiar with the phrase "middle child syndrome," where a middle child often feels jealous and ignored as the older and younger siblings command more of the parents' attentions (Wallace 1999: 8).

However, there are also advantages to this position. A middle child is less pressured than the firstborn, and is less overprotected and more likely to be taken seriously than the youngest child. The flip-side of the equation, however, is that middleborn children are more likely to experience identity questions regarding their role within the family (Wallace 1999: 79).

The youngest children, on the other hand, are the babies of the family. As such, they enjoy longer childhood. The downside to this equation, however, means that younger children are also often actively engaged in defining their own identity in relationship to that of their older siblings (Wallace 1999: 79).

Most of the studies that explored the effects of birth order on social attitudes do not classify laterborns into their own subgroups. Rather, these studies analyze the attitudes of laterborns as a whole in relation to their firstborn siblings. Thus, the data on the social attitudes of laterborn children is comprised of middle children and younger children.

Based on a series of logistic regression coefficients, Sulloway presents how historical data shows a "propensity to rebel" among laterborn historical figures (1996: 456-457).

Of all the social reform movements presented in Sulloway's study, for example, the most disproportionate number of laterborns is found in the abolitionist movement (1996: 152). He further points out that of the 28 scientific revolutions that occurred in the 16th century, 23 were led by later-born children.

Because laterborns historically did not inherit their family's property, Sulloway contends that laterborns had more freedom to travel and have a broader range of experiences. As a result, laterborns are exposed to more ideas, encouraging them towards liberalism (Sulloway 1996: 136).

Primogeniture no longer exists today, and many inheritance practices that were biased towards the firstborns have given way to practices that divide property equally among all siblings (Hrdy and Judge 1993: 22).

Researchers like Lala Steelman and Brian Powell assert that laterborns now benefit more, financially speaking, from their later birth. Because they are more likely to be born at a time when their families are more economically secure, laterborn children often have an advantage when it comes to parental economic investments (Steelman and Powell 1991).

These factors, contend researchers like Sulloway and Adler, contribute to greater freedom from responsibility on the part of laterborn children. As such, they are more likely to question authority and to harbor beliefs that challenge the status quo.


It should be noted that the social and attitudinal effects of birth order are not genetic. Rather, they are a result of different roles, and different parental and social expectations regarding their birth order. It should be further noted, as seen in the case of primogeniture, that these effects vary over historical periods.

Because they are often socialized with adults, firstborn children are theorized to be more achievement-oriented. In contrast, laterborns are peer-socialized and thus are often seen as more popular. This peer-socialization also contributes to a greater acceptance of risk and a greater desire to be independent of authority (Carlson & Kangun, 1988: 57-59).

Effects of Birth Order on Criminal Behavior

If the thesis regarding…

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