Focus on the Family Broadcast

How Your Birth Order Affects Your Parenting

How Your Birth Order Affects Your Parenting

Psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Kevin Leman explains how the order in which you were born has helped shape your personality as an adult and how you relate to your spouse and children.


Man #1: I’m the youngest of three. And I believe that made me more outgoing and funnier than my sisters.

Woman #1: I was fourth out of five kids. And I just got lost in the shuffle.

Man #2: Well, I was at the top of the heap of seven kids. And I guess some of my other siblings thought that I got preferential treatment. I didn’t think I did.

Man #3: I’m the first born. So I am the experiment.

Woman #2: Well, I was the baby of the family. And my mom still calls me baby in a good way. But I like it.

Man #4: Well, I was the fourth in my family. And I’m pretty sure that made me the smartest (laughter).

End of Teaser

John Fuller: So where do you fit in in the birth order of your family? And how does that affect your personality, who you are today and how you interact with your own children? We’re going to be discussing that on today’s “Focus on the Family.” Your host as Focus president and author Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: You know, John, every so often somebody comes up with an observation that is stunning and has such relevance to all of us. Dr. Kevin Leman is one of those people who came across the birth order and put it into practice. He wrote a great book called The Birth Order Book. And we’re going to talk with Kevin today about the importance of birth order, the general concepts, and how that applies even in your parenting. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

John: It is. And a good starting place to find out all about this is our website. We’ve got resources, information about Dr. Leman, and his book, The Birth Order Book: Why You Are The Way You Are. You’ll find that and more at

Jim: Kevin, welcome to “Focus on the Family.”

Kevin Leman: Thank you so much.

Jim: This is one of the funnest topics that we can address, I think. And you love it. How did you come across this, really? I mean, it’s one of those – it’s like Newton discovering, you know, mathematics. What happened?

Kevin: Well, Alfred Adler was the first to talk about striving for superiority in families. And I’m an Adlerian. I don’t expect anybody to know what that means. But I love the Adlerian psychology because it paralleled my faith. It was huge on accountability and all that. And so anyway, I was in a college classroom. And this professor described the first born. I said this ought to be interesting because I have an older sister – reliable, conscientious, list-maker, perfectionistic, likes things done well, opinionated. I go, “whoa, he just described my sister.” He went on – artistic, you know, all these wonderful attributes of the first born. I thought, “shazam.” And then he went to the middle child – rough and tumble, loyal, hangs in there, hardest to pin down of all the birth orders. Sometimes get lost in the shuffle. And I go, “hm, a lot of that sounds like my brother. But a lot of what happened with the first born description, that sort of my brother in a way, too.” But then they went to the baby of the family. And that’s when I became a believer – outgoing, never met a stranger, fun is their middle name, good with relationships, charming, can put others in their service…

Jim: Lacking detail (laughter).

Kevin: Oh, yeah. No detail – underwear’s in the back pocket. But you know – and I thought, “wow.” He just described me to the T. I want to find out more about that. And that was way back in the ‘60s. And I remember going to my publisher and saying, “I want to write about a book about” – I remember going to my publisher and saying, “I’d love to write a book about birth order and its importance in our lives.” And they said, “well, I don’t think so.” And I did a little convincing. And they said, “well, maybe.” Well, many, many trees have died in honor of The Birth Order Book.

Jim: Millions have sold.

Kevin: Yeah, mil…millions have sold.

Jim: It’s so wonderful. Now, look. We’ve got John, the first born. John, is that right?

John: Yes, that is correct.

Jim: And we have also invited Sally Dunn, who at one time was here at “Focus on the Family,” who’s now a professional photographer and works with Focus in that capacity. Sally, you’re that middle child. Welcome to Focus.

Sally Dunn: I am. Thank you.

Jim: We didn’t forget you.

Sally: No (laughter).

Jim: I know you were thinking, “did they forget about me sitting here?” No, we haven’t forgotten. I’m kind of that last born, but six years away from my closest sibling. So I’m kind of that blended thing.

Kevin: Oh, yeah. You’re a functional first born…

Jim: A complicated mess.


Kevin: You don’t become the president of “Focus on the Family” and be a baby. You’re a functional first born.

Jim: Well, we’ll sort that out in a few minutes. And then we have some guests with us here in the studio about 10 or 12 people that are going to listen in. And it will be fun. And Kevin, again, and Sally, too, welcome to Focus.

So let’s get into it. You’ve given that description – kind of the first born, the middle born and the last born. Give us the nuances, though. There’s many variables to this. So describe those variables when it comes to the birth order and the generalities of this.

Kevin: Yeah, Well, there is. We omitted the only child. But let me say this. Only children…

Jim: They deserve to be omitted.


Jim: I’m just kidding. Wow. out there.

Kevin: They’re in a class by themselves. I mean, you want a job done right, people, you hire that only child.

Jim: They are founders.

Kevin: Oh, yes. They do very, very well in life. They’re little adults by age 7.

Jim: All right.

Kevin: OK? – very unusual for a kid to take an attache case to the second grade, but it might be the only child. They don’t get along with people their own age lots of times. They tend to like adult company – sneaking into adult company is just hog heaven for an only child. So again, you talk about the nuances. There’s a lot of things that don’t just blow what we just talked about right out of the air. Number one – sex – sex of the children – five children in a family – there’s a son right in the middle, two girls on top, two girls on the bottom. Well, is that a middle child? No. That’s a firstborn son because he’s the only son in the family. A five-year gap between same-sex children – that starts another family believe it or not. In large families, a family of nine or 11, for example, I’ve never had someone fail to answer the bell on this one – asking a person in that family, “where are the division lines between the big ones, the little ones and us or whatever?” Always – that person in a large family can tell you, “well, there was sort of the – we call them the little boys. They were the babies. And then there was us in the middle. And then there was the big ones.” So there’s a lot of variables where you come to just size of the family. Physical differences. There’s your son. He’s 5 feet tall, and he’s 12 years old. Well, meet little brother Moose who’s 11, and he’s 5 feet 6 inches tall and 45 pounds heavier. Well, there’s going to be what we call a role reversal there. So physical differences. Age gaps – but check this out. The critical-eyed parent – now, if you want to throw birth order for a loop, put a critical-eyed mom or critical-eyed dad in that family and lots of times that will turn the first born who is usually the meticulous – everything’s got to be just right – into, put it bluntly, a slob who lives in piles, who runs late for about everything, is disheveled in their thinking in many ways.

John: It that because it’s just easier? I’m going to fail anyway.

Kevin: It’s because they can’t measure up to those unrealistic expectations that that first born parent, or only born parent in particular, puts upon that first born son or daughter.

John: Got it.

Jim: And that’s a great way to listen to what you’re expressing today and when you read the book, The Birth Order Book, for parents particularly – to look at, “how does this affect my parenting style?” And it’s profound. And it’s good.

Now, let’s get to Sal. Let’s start with the middle child because they never – Kevin, they never get to go first.

Kevin: They never get to go first. But I would like to start with Sally with a question that she probably hasn’t heard in her entire life? Are you ready for it?

Jim: Here we go.

Kevin: Sally, what do you think?


Sally: Wow.


Jim: Is that a revelation or what?

Sally: Yeah, I mean, I think some of – my sister, and my older sister, who is four years older than me, she was kind of a slob. I do have a parent who has a little bit of a critical eye. So maybe that’s why or maybe that’s part of her naturally. But, I don’t know if I really – I kind of overlooked and stuff. But if I ever really voiced my opinion until I left the house, so…

Kevin: And that’s very typical of a second or third child who might be a middle child in a family. They tell me that they felt squeezed. The crown prince or princess got more than their fair share of the ink in the family, so to speak – the notoriety. There’s not many firstborn children around who haven’t resonated with this. “Listen, I don’t care what he did. I don’t care what she did. You are the oldest. I expect more of you young woman or young man.” So we groom the first born, in your case, Sally, that older sister who is four years older. We sort of groom her. But you’ve thrown a little monkey wrench in here. And when you start talking about, “wait a minute. I had a parent that had a little critical nature.” That tends to pay a toll, OK, on the first born’s life. But it also adds some flavor to our featured middle child, Miss Sally Dunn. Yes.

Sally: Because I always saw her get in trouble. And I remembered thinking, “Ew… I don’t want to do that.”

Kevin: Don’t want to get in trouble.

Jim: So you had a person in front of you you could watch.

Sally: Yeah.

Kevin: So Sally’s mantra in life is “can’t we all just get along? Can’t the oceans of life be smooth?” So she’s a perfect middle child in that she’s a mediator, negotiator, compromiser. And guess what? When I walked in this room, I didn’t know anything about Sally. But I’d bet my birth order tail on that statement that there’s very much in accommodator…

Jim: Well, let’s prove it.

Sally: Yeah, I would agree with that. In fact, even really with my siblings, even to this day, I am the mediator. I’m… want peace. And I’m actually the only one that lives away from my parents. So a lot of times, I feel left out. But I try to call them and stay in the loop. And so…

Kevin: OK, I was doing “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and I made this statement. And there were three daughters, African-American daughters, on the show. And I said, “this one” – and I pointed to the middle child – “in all probability, lives farthest away from the entire family.” And they went crazy because they said, “well, we’re – we’re in Jersey and Chicago and she’s in California.” And middle children – and this sounds strange. They feel a certain amount of alienation in their own family. OK? They’re the ones. Remember I said they’re fiercely loyal. If you’ve got a friend, that’s a middle child you’ve got a great friend who’s going to hang in there forever. They understand what it feels like to be on the outside. And so when someone accepts them – now, again, if you’re married to Sally Dunn, let me give you a warning. Here it is. You’re in good hands with Allstate. And since this is radio, I have my hands cupped together. And Sally Dunn has to feel like she’s in good hands. If she does, she purrs like a kitten. If she doesn’t, there’s trouble because she’s going to feel isolated and withdraw.

John: Interesting – I think there are some studies that show that the strongest marriages involve a middle child.

Kevin: You know, the best the best matches – I always say when you have a middle child in a marriage, it’s like going down to the blood bank and finding a universal donor because those middle children go with about everything. If you want a marriage with some sparks then put to only children together or two firstborn. They’ll kill each other before long, I mean, because of the perfection. But these guys – she endured hand-me-downs, OK?

Sally: Yeah.

Kevin: I remember in private practice one day talking to these two little boys. This little middle child boy, about 12 years old, speaks up. He says, “Dr. Leman, I’m getting a new jacket today.” The older brother says, “you’re not getting a new jacket. You’re getting my old jacket.” I’m getting a new jacket. I felt so sorry for this little kid.

Jim: That is a mean older brother.

Kevin: Yeah. So middle children make great marital partners. They see both sides of issues. They’re great and management and business because they see the pluses and minuses of things.

Jim: Good negotiators.

Kevin: Good negotiators.

Jim: What about in that parenting role? What are some of the challenges and the good things that a middle child brings to the parenting role as a parent?

Kevin: Again, they’re good at seeing both sides. But all of us have a birth order in this room. OK? And you tend to over identify with the child that’s in the same ordinal position as you were. So if Sally had a middle child. OK? And she doesn’t if I’m remembering right. Right? You got two kids.

Sally: Right, two kids.

Kevin: So the best guess would be that she over identifies with the youngest, the one closest to her birth order – where she might be more protective and give a few too many warnings to the first born to back off and let this second child row her own canoe.

Jim: She’s nodding yes.

Sally: I would probably agree with that. I find myself being harder on my first born, the expectations, like you said, kinda giving him…

Kevin: Yes. And that’s typical for most of us as parents. I mean, I’ve said many times the first born in a family is the lab rat of the family. We do as parents practice on them.

Jim: OK. You feel better?

Sally: Yeah. My second is very similar to my husband who is a baby. So they are both entertainers.

Jim: You said that with a little disdain. Is there a problem?

Sally: So they’re very – they – and which I think is easier to, like you said, overcompensate and nurture and love him a little bit more sometimes (laughter).

Kevin: Us babies of the family, they follow little Mr. Dynamite and Miss Everything. And by the time you get through a few kids, lots of times, their way through life is through humor, getting around people. And you’re listening to a baby in the family. But check this out. When my son graduated from college in Florida. He had an early morning graduation. And I said, “hey, what do we do?” And my son said, “Dad, is there any way we can go up to Disney?” I said, “let’s go.” We went to Disney. OK? So we show up to Disney – again, I don’t make this stuff up folks – 180 bucks a pop. Well, I have nine people with me.

Well, I saw a little sign that said media relations, and my eyes narrowed. And I said, “media relations.” And my wife knows me as good as anybody. And she says – she grabbed my arm. And she said, “Leme (ph), no. Just get out the plastic.” Because she knew what I was going to do. I said, “honey, I just need 10 minutes.” “No.” To show you how much I obeyed my wife, I made a b-line for media relations. I still remember the kid’s name. His name was Daniel. OK? When I see Daniel and not Dan, I know he’s a first born. OK? Now, it took me, it took me more than 20 minutes to pull this off. But when I think of things I’ve done in life – OK – achievements I’ve done in life – what you’re about to hear is an achievement. I started with Daniel. His boss comes in. I said, “hey, listen. I’d like to get some free tickets into Disney.” He said, “well, sir. I’m a member of SAG” – you know, the Screen Actors Guild and all that stuff. But he goes through the protocol. You got to have these in two weeks. I said, “sir, I know that. But my son just graduated in college. It’s a a spur of the moment thing.” His boss comes in. I said, “OK, everybody stop picking your nose. Here comes the boss.” The boss ends up saying – shaking his head affirmatively “Go ahead. Help him out.” The kid gives me nine tickets. You’re about to hear the high point of Kevin Leman’s marriage to Sandra – Mrs. Upington Leman. I go back looking a little dejected. As only my firstborn wife could say – she says, “well, show me the tickets, Mr. Big Time.” I reach in my back pocket, and I fanned nine tickets.


Kevin: Highlight…

Jim: It’s like a guy who scores a touchdown and slams the ball in the end zone, right?

Kevin: That’s a, that’s a baby skill – always make a friend. And when I walk into a hotel desk there, always make the friend.

Sally: So what would you say to the mom who is struggling – like, maybe she’s a – like, I’m a middle. And so I have a first born. And the first born is very black-and-white-thinking. There’s only one way to do the right thing. And I am a middle. And I’m very flexible. And I’m the one that is like, “well, there’s lots of ways to do it.” So I find myself getting hard on him to just allow his little brother to do…

Kevin: What’s first born’s name?

Sally: Brendan.

Kevin: Brendan – or Attila, as some of us call him.


Kevin: And see – and so you see this. And it’s amazing because I’m involved in building charter schools. And I’m always telling the teachers, “hey, don’t assume things.” You meet this kid who’s got the same last name, OK? Done. And you’re the school teacher. And you say, “oh, well, you must be you must be Brendan’s little brother. It’s so nice to have you in class.” Well, be careful. Because Brendan might have been the model student. But now little number two child is Attila.

Jim: (Laughing) Right…

Kevin: And see, we assume because kids came out the same den that they’re the same. They’re not. And I go back to how almighty God holds all of us accountable in different ways. And he’s created us in different ways. We’re different people.

Sally: And we tell Brendan that. Hey, Devan is his own person. He doesn’t need two parents.

Kevin: Or three.

Sally: A third – but yeah. Another dad is what we really say. And we tell him that. But he’s definitely like – tells Devan, the younger one, “no, Devan, you need to do it this way.” So…

Jim: OK. We have got to move now to the others because, you know, I’m the baby, too. And I want some attention. But let’s go to the only – let’s go to the only child.

Kevin: Well, only’s are little adults, like I said, before age 6 or 7. They love adult company. They tend to be in structured occupations. Your accountants, your engineers, are firstborn and only born children in huge numbers. Anywhere where perfection is paid off, you’re going to find the first born.

Jim: So those are the pros. They’re really good at detail. They’re good at follow-through, responsible. What are some of the things they got to watch out for in their parenting style?

Kevin: Well, the skill that makes him a great astronaut, for example. The first 23 astronauts in outer space – you’ll love this one…

Jim: …Were all only children?

Kevin: Firstborn children – 21 first born, two only’s, not a middle or youngest in sight.

Sally: (Quietly) Wow…

Kevin: Ok? Middle children – we’ve talked about babies can get away with murder. The original title of The Birth Order Book, when it was bound in rubber bands and cardboard, had it a working title, “Abel Had It Coming.” And the publisher said, “Leman, you cannot have a title like, “Abel Had It Coming.” I said, “it’s got a little family flavor to it. I sort of like it.” But no. The firstborn children sat around the desk, came up with a provocative title, The Birth Order Book. Congratulations, boring firstborns.


Kevin: But anyway, to me, to get down to what this is all about – it’s amazing that God created kids, these little cubs come out of the same den and look how different they are. And does God treat us all the same? No. He gave us all different gifts, different responsibilities.

Identical twins are really interesting because they have the same DNA. They’re genetically the same person. But this freaked me out when I heard it years ago – never, never, never forgot this. Identical twins have different fingerprints. Why? Why did God do that? – to help the FBI? – to help the Royal Canadian police? No. It was God’s way of saying, “you are my son. You are my daughter. You are different than anyone else.” As parents, what do we do? We say, “All right. I want everybody in bed now.” We treat kids the same. What a disrespectful thing. Put that little one down first. Grab the birthright. From biblical days forward, the first born always got more than his fair share. And to treat kids differently is not disrespectful. I think it’s very respectful.

Jim: OK, we got to get John in here now as a first born.

John: Oh, it’s OK.

Jim: No, no. Yeah. I love that. So let’s hit that first born again with John as the…

Kevin: Well, you first born’s – OK, I’m speaking in general, John. You know exactly how life ought to be. You know the way things are. You tend to be fixers. You have the answers. When you see a flaw, your natural instinct is to go in and fix it. And ladies, if you’re married to a first born, let me give you some real good advice. Say things like, “honey, could I tap into your lockstep A comes before B mind, because I have a problem and I really need some help with it?” You say that to a firstborn husband, he’s in there and helping. OK. Most women don’t want their husbands to come in and fix anything. OK. And again, most first borns tend to see the flaw. And they pounce on it. And they want to fix it. And they want it instantly done, which is part-and-partial to our instant Jell-O-like society we live in today.

John: And that was one of my big challenges early on in parenting is I thought my little 3 or 4-year-old should snap to it and do what I expected of him right away. I remember one time I looked at him. And I thought, “you’re not doing what I said.” And then I realized, “but look at you. You’re just a little squirt.”


John: I mean, I’m expecting me to be 10 or 12. But you’re only 3 or 4.

Kevin: Yeah. So you have to watch your expectations. And you know we had talked on another program about the words we tend to use. And encouraging words with kids are really important. Let kids give back to you. Let kids help you. And then that encouragement is just, “hey, thank you. That was so much fun to be together. And I really appreciate your help.” Let kids feel part of things. It makes all the difference in the world.

Jim: Now, in the parenting conflict – let’s call it that – where you have a first born married to a last born. I would think a lot of that birth order that you grew up in affects your parenting profoundly. And you can be on a different page because of that because the last born wants it to be fun and a party and let’s entertain our kids. And the first born’s trying to fix everything. And it could create some conflict, can’t it?

Kevin: It can. But, you know, when you grow together – I’m going to be very personal. I’m married to the firstborn, classy lady who does things well. She’s gracious. I mean, she’s a wonderful human being – pretty on the outside, but even prettier on the inside, believe it or not. And she told me that when she was a little girl, she prayed that God would bring her a man of character.

Jim: And not the character (laughter).

Kevin: And the punch line is yeah – God brought me a character. But, you know, I’m here to tell you that with marriage and years together, I’ve discovered she needs me because she worries about far too many things. She needs to loosen up. I help her loosen up. And she helps straighten me up.

I came home from CBS, I did an interview with them in New York. And I said, “honey, you never told me. Did you like the spot?” And she said, “you were good.” I knew right then and there – that’s what – I hate that – when she does that to me. “You were good.” Well, what does that mean? She said, “did you have to blow your nose in your tie? You’re a respected psychologist. People read your books. They look up to you. And there you are blowing your nose.” Well, Harry Smith was interviewing me. He said, “well, Dr. Leman, we never got to your birth order.” Well, the guys count down. I’m up against a hard break, which means we’re going black to a commercial in a second. So I took my tie and baby-of-the-family style, feign that I blew my nose in it and said, “I’m a youngest child. I’d do anything for a cheap laugh.” Well, Mrs. Upington, my bride, the first born didn’t think that was very funny and certainly not very professional.


Kevin: (Chhh-chhh-chhh) I took the whooping from her, I’ll tell you.

Jim: All right. You’re touching on that last born so…

Kevin: The last born and first born – last born, and only, is [a] pretty good match because there’s some balance there. Now, you got to work it out so where you’re shoulder to shoulder as a parent. But taking the Sally Dunn’s of the world – God bless the Sally Dunn’s of the world – they go with anybody. They go with a baby.

Jim: They’re O positive blood, right?

Sally: Because we’re balanced.

Kevin: Oh, they do. They go with the first born. The worst match for another Sally Dunn is, guess what? – another middle child. Because middle children tend to avoid conflict. So you got wife avoiding conflict, husband avoids conflict. I got news for when you’re married – hello – late breaking news – women are weird, OK? Men are strange. God was the original humorist when he came up with this one. And the two shall become one. Hey, God, that was really funny. I got to give you that one. But throwing these people together in marriage – you got to get behind each other’s eyes until you see life. So for the middle child, they have to learn to say, “well, honey, there’s some things that – well, it’s not that big a thing” – they sort of walk their way slowly. And well, there’s a problem here.

Jim: I love that perspective of learning to look at life from your spouse’s birth order. Man, that is good. And Kevin, we’ve been inspired and encouraged. And we are more knowledgeable now about our parenting and what causes us to parent in the styles that we do. Your book, The Birth Order Book: Why You Are The Way You Are, what an incredible resource for everyone. Uh, if you’re a parent or you’re just thinking about where you’re at as a single, everybody could benefit from this information. The first born, do you agree?

John: I, I can benefit from it.

Kevin: Could we have some special applause for our middle child?

Jim: I was going to middle child – Sally.


Kevin: Yay – Sally Dunn.

Jim: Just like the youngest like you to take over the show.


Jim: And lets – let us express our appreciation to you – so audience.


Jim: Oh, youngest – they love it. Keep it going for Kevin.

Kevin: So much truth to what you just said – psychological profound truth.

Jim: So much better – but you really need this as part of your arsenal of how to live life, do it better. And this is how God has wired us, you know? It’s interesting. There’s only so many birth orders. There are only so many personalities. We’re kind of in a box. And I think God intended it that way. Why? – so that we find Him, I think, so we come to the end of ourselves. Because they all have deficiencies, don’t they? They all have upsides. But that deficiency pushes you toward a relationship with God. And that’s what’s so beautiful.

So get a copy. Our way of saying thank you will be – and make a gift of any amount. And we’ll send this book along to you to help you.

John: Make that donation and get your copy of The Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Leman when you call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. Or stop by

And be sure, while you’re at the website, to listen to some of the question and answer sessions that we had with Dr. Kevin Leman and our great gallery audience.

On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to “Focus on the Family.” I’m John Fuller inviting you back as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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