The Family Unit

Homo sapiens are mammals, which happen to operate as social animals. They group together and form families of varying sizes through procreation and affiliation. The groups are wide-ranging, both inclusive and exclusive, diverse and serve differing functions. Through these bonds, humans build social identities.

We are going to begin this portion of the Identity Series to explore the groups which help us form our social identities.

The Classic Nuclear Family

Nuclear Family

The first group to which we bond is our family. This unit can be as simple as a parent and child¹ or as complex as a blended family with two parents and siblings of all delineation. Our journey into identity begins with our definition within the family group.

Birth order weighs heavily on our initial identity. Societies place greater worth and responsibility on the eldest child, as this child is perceived as the leader (matriarch or patriarch) of the next generation and the one onto whom the care of the elders will first fall. Despite variances for ethnicity and culture, this delineation is the majority.

When we are quizzed about our familial standing, we offer our birth order in a tacit exchange to show our role within the nuclear family and as it pertains to the extended family.

Extended Family

Extended Family

Beyond those who live in the family dwelling, the extended family includes lesser relations: grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The extended family network exists to support the nuclear family emotionally, socially and financially, as needs arrive.

In patriarchal societies, the common offering for birth order includes the rank of the son (first, second, etc.).

All Under One Roof

Consanguineous Family

Households which contain three or more generations of the same family are consanguineous. Often, roles within the family are similar across cultures and show deference to the eldest male as the head of the household. Each generation, and members within each generation, hold specific roles within the consanguineous family².

What does that have to do with me?

The construct of your original family bears on your identity in more ways than merely your birth order. Based on the hierarchy of your family, you will take on different responsibilities than your siblings (if any). Distribution of family resources (food, money, time) influence the value you place on those resources and the procurement of them.

No? Let’s look at a few examples.

The Golden Boy

This child is Dad’s and Grandpa’s namesakes. He is a Trip, so even his name connotes heir. He is the oldest. His college tuition account is full before he is 12. He is groomed for the family business or a profession to far exceed Dad’s occupation. Every one of his firsts is recorded in a baby book complete with photos, handwritten accounts by both parents and  videos archived on DVD and web storage.

When younger siblings come along, Trip is moved up a notch in the hierarchy when he is promoted to helper.

The Princess

Babs Has It Made

Mom has already had a baby shower with each of the children. Babs comes into the world to a fully stocked nursery and toys rated for each year until she is eight. Mom even takes some toys away from the older children to specifically save for Babs. Mom is wise to the devious ways of the child and has mastered the art of bribery. She has also learned how to employ older siblings in caring for the infant.

Children will give babies anything to make them be quiet. They will sacrifice toys to keep Mom from coming to the room to inquire why Babs is crying. Babs learns early: Tears produce results.

The Non-Child

When Babs came along, Midi was moved from being the baby to being the middle child. It did not come with all the perks of Trip’s promotion, although Midi is entrusted to be assistant helper. Midi can see Trip’s job as easier and Babs’ job as easiest. Midi is not the superlative of anything any longer. When searching for the identity Parents bestowed in the baby book, Midi finds blank pages after Babs arrived.

This shift from the superlative of youngest to Midi muddles identity.

Not Static

Although our birth order does influence our identities, it is not the only determinate factor. Our identities change over time. We find alternative avenues to grow, or we discover ways to mitigate the birth order identities. Developing identity is not an overnight processes. It is also not one which remains static because as we adapt to changing environment, our identities grow, change and/or expand.


1. Traditional definition of nuclear family consists only of two sexually cohabitating adults and their children (biological or adopted), but in the last 50 years has come to mean any combination of up to two adults and their children (biological, adopted and/or step).

2. Consanguineous family is not applied to polyamorous or polygamist families. Complex family is used to describe families with more than two adults at the procreation level.


Where are you?

In terms of your nuclear family, which role do you have? What role did your birth order play in forming your identity? Have you outgrown your birth order identity through self-realization?

(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2012
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  1. Interesting that you don’t include gender with birth order in child identity.
    A girl as a middle child with brothers would have a different experience than that of a boy with sisters…

    • This one is only about birth order. You are correct about the gender dynamics, but the variant for ethnicity is extremely large. This journey is going to be a baby steps version, which is why comments are always welcome.

      The segment about gender identity is later in the series. I chose this as the first step because in infancy and young childhood, gender bias is not as influential as familial hierarchy as a determinant for identity. Just one more myth I will dispel.


  2. You are taking a big bite with this one my brave sister. I could muddle you forever…

    I am the eldest twice + 1
    I am the second to the youngest once

    Both feed into my identity somewhat though I suspect because of how early I left my traditional home my identity was actually formed by other far more dynamic things.

    • Tell me! I am eldest originally and then twice and second eldest twice. Plus, I am the beginning of my generation times four.

      By far, the basis of birth order is not far reaching, but is determinant to how we handle the more assertive dynamics which come with and after puberty.

  3. I am the youngest of three. My brother said he hated me because when I was born, our sister and him stopped being friends. Incidently, they don’t like each other still. I really don’t see my birth as that major of an event.
    I suppose I was/am the favorite, but I don’t know about birth order. I know that I watched my two older siblings and tried not to do the bad things I saw them get into trouble for. I know that no matter what stupid life changing decisions my Dad made, I still talked to him and stayed in his life. The others went in and out and are on the outs now. Who knows?

    • There is a lot to the learning curve for the younger ones. I had a steep learning curve as the eldest, but it was more about learning to deflect culpability than truly learning to evade punishment for my own wrongdoing.

      The whole staying associated with parents when they are making the choices adults make is difficult amongst siblings who choose to make individual judgments rather than siding with the siblings. With as many as I have, I see it on a day-to-day basis.

      Birth order applies to how the parents treat the child, and the way the child receives the treatment. In your case, being the favorite…You could have grown up to be the entitled brat or the sly one who observes to learn.

  4. I was an only child, growing up in a household with both parents, maternal grandmother Mawie, and a shifting vista of aunts and uncles from both sides, first as singles, then as married with children, who sometimes boarded with us for a few weeks in a 4-room rented house (with running water! something we didn’t have for the first few years after moving to “the country.”); so I had it all–except siblings. For me, it was ideal. Though more than one cousin growing up believed I was “spoiled” even though we were as poor as they all were.

    • Peer perspective is always so interesting. To them, you were rich because you had the house where they did not. I have had the huge family always, so I am not certain I would know how to cope with not having little ones underfoot at all times. Even when the little ones were not mine, they have been there all along. Great to see you today.

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