The Fate of the First Born Child

Having recently downsized from a rambling family home to a miniscule apartment, I’m being forced to reduce my library of books. This is a harrowing process, but one which is throwing up a mass of long-forgotten insights and ideas. For instance I came across a book called The Promised Seed: A Comparative Study of Eminent First and Later Sons by Dr Irving Harris, a psychoanalyst who was once an associate professor at the University of Illinois Medical School. Now this is a topic of interest to us all: the idea that our place in the family birth order can influence the way our personalities develop. Many observers in the past have suggested that the characters of first born children are distinct from those of their younger brothers and sisters, because of the different relationship they have with their parents. Some psychologists believe that the exclusivity of this one-to-one relationship makes first born child introverted, whereas later offspring tend to be more gregarious and extroverted in their behaviour. Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychoanalyst, believed that first born children are liable to harbour feelings of inferiority, which stems from the trauma they suffer when they find themselves displaced from their parents’ affection by the arrival of a second child.

This is a fascinating subject, discussed at length in Dr Harris’s book, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop ten years ago. I’ve looked at it several times since then, but always put it my collection of ‘books to be read’ because it lacked instant appeal. Now, at last, I’ve subjected it to the ‘keep or cull’ process. As I suspected it’s neither a clear nor credible read. It starts out with the fixed idea that first born sons are ‘connected’, which is the term Harris uses to mean that they seek to find ordered links between the present and the past. Conversely, he claims that later sons are ‘disconnected’, meaning that they focus on the present and feel no need to integrate these current events into a historical perspective. According to Harris the former excel at synthesis, the latter at analysis. Having stated this belief he then offers endless case histories to support his thesis, in a dull, repetitive and unconvincing fashion. After the first 250 pages I was sure that this was a book I could safely donate to a charity shop or jumble sale. Then I came to an account of a scientific study of 384 infants which revealed that first-born children ‘articulate consistently better than do second-born children’ and ‘scored higher than second-born children in curiosity.’ This is a more convincing concept, and merits further investigation.

But what finally made me decide to retain the book was the author’s comments about Aléxis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth century French historian, who made a lengthy visit to America in the aftermath of the French Revolution. As a political thinker, his main interest was in the promotion of democracy and freedom. Given the public appeal of these twin virtues he felt sure that the American Union was doomed to fail, because the individual states would need to cling to their sovereignty in order to meet the democratic needs of their citizens. As he wrote in his ground-breaking book Democracy in America: ‘Many people in France imagine that a change of opinion is going on in the United States which is favourable to a centralisation of power in the hands of the President and the Congress. I hold that a contrary tendency may distinctly be observed. So far is the Federal government, as it grows old, from acquiring strength and from threatening the sovereignty of the states that I maintain it to be growing weaker and the sovereignty of the Union alone to be in danger.’ If de Tocqueville were alive today, I wonder what views he would hold about the future of democracy in the Old World, if the countries of Europe choose to surrender their sovereignty to a single Federal parliament, ruled by an undemocratically elected President Blair?

Key Words: Birth order, First born children, Alexis de Tocqueville, European Union

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