Sunday, May 08, 2005

Born to rebel

Historian of science Frank Sulloway contends that birth order pretty much determines who we are.

According to Sulloway, firstborns identify with parents and authority, and defend their primary place against encroachments by younger brothers and sisters. They tend to be ambitious, conscientious and conservative.

Later-borns must stake out new family niches; they are open to new experiences and take greater risks. They tend to be imaginative, flexible and liberal.

All of this is laid out in Sulloway's book, Born To Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives (1997).

Some years ago, when the book first appeared, I tested Sulloway's thesis by interviewing three famous pairs of siblings for the Boston Globe: Hansel and Gretel, Flopsy and Peter Rabbit, and the Hardy Boys.

Hansel: "I knew my father didn't want us to die in the forest. He's really a splendid fellow, just led astray by our wicked stepmother. If the family hadn't been starving, he would never have listened to her evil scheme. Besides, I knew I could find our way home from the forest if I put my mind to it. A pocket full of shiny pebbles, a pocket full of bread crumbs. My younger sister Gretel is such a whiner. Always whimpering, complaining. She doesn't realize how hard it is for our father to feed a family of four on a woodcutter's income. I knew that when we found our way home he would be proud of me."

Gretel: "If only Hansel would open his eyes he would realize that our father had only one thing in mind: filling his own fat belly. Sure, our stepmother put him up to it, but he consented to abandon us in the forest, not once, but twice. Hansel's such a fool, always making excuses for Father. And that silly scheme to follow a trail of bread crumbs, as if bread crumbs were the same as shiny pebbles. Never passed his mind that birds might eat the crumbs. I'll admit I was scared. But who was it who saved our necks in the end? Who thought of tricking the witch into sticking her head in the oven? Who pushed her in and bolted the door? Not clever Hansel. If I had my way, we would have taken the witch's pearls and precious jewels and gone off to live in some glittering city, bought myself some adorable dresses, a coach and fours, married a prince. But not Hansel. Even after what our father did to us, he returned home and gave Father the witch's treasure. What good, I ask you, is an older brother?"

Flopsy: "It's a terrible burden being the oldest in the family. So much responsibility keeping Mopsy, Cotton-Tail and Peter from making bothers of themselves. Especially Peter, the youngest. Always getting in trouble. Just the other day he made a terrible mess of it. Disobeyed our mother while she was off to the store buying currant buns. Sneaked into Mr. McGregor's garden. Can you believe it? The last thing Mother said was 'Don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden.' And off he goes. Lost his shoes and jacket, too. He was lucky to get away alive. For the life of me, I can't understand why he doesn't show better sense. Mother was in a right dither."

Peter Rabbit: "Currant buns! Crikey, who wants currant buns when there's lettuce, radishes and parsley just inside McGregor's fence. Currant buns aren't proper nosh. Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail are such namby pambies, in their silly little jackets and twee shoes. Who ever heard of a rabbit in jacket and shoes? They're trying to win house points with Ma, that's what. Meanwhile, I'm having the time of my life munching McGregor's veggies. My older sisters and brother got cheesed off 'cause I lost my jacket and shoes. No way! I ditched 'em as soon as I was outta Ma's sight. Ditched my shoes and ran like the wind, that's what. Made a fool of McGregor. OK, so I got put to bed without my supper. Who needs it? Man, those radishes were good!"

Frank Hardy: "Gosh, it's swell to be the son of a famous detective. Dad's topnotch, and he always lets me and Joe help him sleuth his cases. Joe's my younger brother. My best pal, too. We do everything together. Chase bank robbers, spy on smugglers, foil counterfeiters. Trouble is, Joe tends to fly off in all directions. He's impetuous, Dad says. A detective should be reflective, analytical, careful. Like Dad. People always say I remind them of Dad. 'Frank, they say. You're the spittin' image of Fenton Hardy.'"

Joe Hardy: "My brother Frank is a crackerjack guy. But sometimes he's such a straight arrow. Just once I'd like for him to do something crazy. Lose his temper. Use a cuss word. Break the speed limit in our roadster. He's always worrying about what Dad will think. It's Dad this, Dad that. Sometime I'd like to get off on my own -- without Frank. Sneak a beer in a Bayport bar. Take Chet's sister Iola out to that abandoned house on the cliff, cop a feel, steal a kiss. Frank is such a goody-goody. I can't wait 'till I'm old enough to get away from Bayport on my own. Hollywood, maybe. Play a detective in films. Chase starlets. Drink like a fish. I'm tired of living in Frank's shadow. I was born to rebel."

Further Reading

Sulloway's book is fun reading, especially if you have siblings or children. Frank Sulloway, Born To Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives (1997)

Student Activities

  1. Appendix 11 of Born to Rebel offers a test of your own propensity to rebel. Take the test with your classmates and decide if Sulloway has his ducks in a row.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.