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It is easy to wonder how two children from the same family can turn out so differently, with completely different personalities and ways of solving problems. Recognizing the immense influence of family dynamics on young children can clear up a lot of the confusion. For example, eldest children look to their parents as role models for their behavior, and may become perfectionistic as parents expect them to act like little adults. Middle children may become more dependent on peer approval and their friends because they tend to get relatively less attention within their families. And youngest children may use humor as a way of securing their parents' attention.

However, birth order actually plays a subtler role than the above examples may suggest. Not all middle children are very gregarious and social, and not all youngest children play the clown. Before assuming that because your middle child is a perfectionist, birth order cannot play a role in your family, you should take a look at some of the factors that may influence how birth order affects your family.

Most important is the spacing of children. If children are more than five years apart, it is more like the parents have two separate families than as if they have two children, an oldest and a youngest. You can expect your ten-year-old to act like an only child, your three-year-old like another oldest child in the family, and your one-year-old to act like the youngest. This is because birth order influences personality the most during the first five years of life. By the same token, if a child is adopted after the age of five, he or she will tend to retain the birth-order characteristics of his place in his original family.

"Special children" can also play an important role in the family dynamic that may partially offset other factors. A "special child" is, for example, the only girl in a family of five, or a physically or mentally handicapped child. Essentially, any child that receives a disproportionate share of family attention is a "special child." With special children, parents need to pay specific attention if there is a middle child just older than the special child. Much attention that might have gone to this child will likely be diverted by the special child, and this is something that parents need to watch out for.

So, with the exceptions aside, what can you do to parent your eldest child, middle child, youngest child more effectively? We will examine the specific characteristics of each group of children, and make specific recommendations as to how you can improve your children's well being.

Eldest children and only children look to their parents as the people on whom they should model their behavior. Often problems arise because both parents and the children themselves expect the children to act like little adults. For example, an eldest child who observes a parent re-making his bed may feel guilty because he did not make his bed well enough, and may also seek to make it perfectly next time. This child strongly seeks parental approval. Oldest children often are very sensitive to criticism, very eager to please, and responsible. Often, in later life, they become very successful - a disproportionate number of U.S. Presidents and Fortune 500 CEO's have been eldest children or only children.

However, it is very important for parents to remember that their eldest child is only a child. He or she cannot do everything perfectly yet, and that should be respected. Also, eldest and only children should not be allowed to make too many decisions. Often an eldest child helps run the household, or an only child feels that he is the center around which his parents' world revolves. Neither of these are healthy positions for a child to be in.

Middle children are the most enigmatic. The direction they take is most strongly influenced by their next older sibling. They realize quickly, however, that they are not able to do most things as well as their older sibling, because they are littler and less adept. They most often try to differentiate themselves from their older sibling, for example by being athletic if their older sibling is not, or academic if he is. They may resort to bad behavior in order to get more of their parents' attention, under the rationale that even negative attention is better than no attention. Or, they may realize self-importance within their social sphere, and become less dependent on the family for attention. Either way, what most middle children need most is more attention.

Youngest children are most likely to profit from bending of the rules. Many oldest children return from college to find their youngest sibling has no curfew, whereas they had to be home at 10:30 at the same age. Youngest children are often doted on by their parents. However, because they are small, they usually learn to be either an entertainer or someone who stays out of family conflicts, because they are too little to be powerful players in the family. To parent youngest children more effectively, recognize their accomplishments (even though a graduation from primary school may be old hat to you now) and try to stick by your rules.

Not all families are alike, and there are certainly other factors that influence how your child will grow and develop. Good rules and a lot of love remain essential ingredients of good parenting. Understanding birth order, however, will help you become more aware of each of your children's individual circumstances, and help you tailor your approach.