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 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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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?