Adler, like Freud, saw personality or lifestyle as something established quite early in life. In fact, the prototype of your lifestyle tends to be fixed by about five years old. New experiences, rather than change that prototype, tend to be interpreted in terms of the prototype, “force fit,” in other words, into preconceived notions, just like new acquaintances tend to get “force fit” into our stereotypes.
Adler felt that there were three basic childhood situations that most contribute to a faulty lifestyle. The first is one we’ve spoken of several times: organ inferiorities, as well as early childhood diseases. They are what he called “overburdened,” and if someone doesn’t come along to draw their attention to others, they will remain focussed on themselves. Most will go through life with a strong sense of inferiority; A few will overcompensate with a superiority complex. Only with the encouragement of loved ones will some truly compensate.
The second is pampering. Many children are taught, by the actions of others, that they can take without giving. Their wishes are everyone else’s commands. This may sound like a wonderful situation, until you realize that the pampered child fails in two ways: First, he doesn’t learn to do for himself, and discovers later that he is truly inferior; And secondly, he doesn’t learn any other way to deal with others than the giving of commands. And society responds to pampered people in only one way: hatred.
The third is neglect. A child who is neglected or abused learns what the pampered child learns, but learns it in a far more direct manner: They learn inferiority because they are told and shown every day that they are of no value; They learn selfishness because they are taught to trust no one. If you haven’t known love, you don’t develop a capacity for it later. We should note that the neglected child includes not only orphans and the victims of abuse, but the children whose parents are never there, and the ones raised in a rigid, authoritarian manner.
Adler must be credited as the first theorist to include not only a child’s mother and father and other adults as early influence on the child, but the child’s brothers and sisters as well. His consideration of the effects of siblings and the order in which they were born is probably what Adler is best-known for. I have to warn you, though, that Adler considered birth-order another one of those heuristic ideas — useful fictions — that contribute to understanding people, but must be not be taken too seriously.
The only child is more likely than others to be pampered, with all the ill results we’ve discussed. After all, the parents of the only child have put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, and are more likely to take special care — sometimes anxiety-filled care — of their pride and joy. If the parents are abusive, on the other hand, the only child will have to bear that abuse alone.
The first child begins life as an only child, with all the attention to him- or herself. Sadly, just as things are getting comfortable, the second child arrives and “dethrones” the first. At first, the child may battle for his or her lost position. He or she might try acting like the baby — after all, it seems to work for the baby! — only to be rebuffed and told to grow up. Some become disobedient and rebellious, others sullen and withdrawn. Adler believes that first children are more likely than any other to become problem children. More positively, first children are often precocious. They tend to be relatively solitary and more conservative than the other children in the family.
The second child is in a very different situation: He or she has the first child as a sort of “pace-setter,” and tends to become quite competitive, constantly trying to surpass the older child. They often succeed, but many feel as if the race is never done, and they tend to dream of constant running without getting anywhere. Other “middle” children will tend to be similar to the second child, although each may focus on a different “competitor.”
The youngest child is likely to be the most pampered in a family with more than one child. After all, he or she is the only one who is never dethroned! And so youngest children are the second most likely source of problem children, just behind first children. On the other hand, the youngest may also feel incredible inferiority, with everyone older and “therefore” superior. But, with all those “pace-setters” ahead, the youngest can also be driven to exceed all of them.
Who is a first, second, or youngest child isn’t as obvious as it might seem. If there is a long stretch between children, they may not see themselves and each other the same way as if they were closer together. There are eight years between my first and second daughter and three between the second and the third: That would make my first daughter an only child, my second a first child, and my third the second and youngest! And if some of the children are boys and some girls, it makes a difference as well. A second child who is a girl might not take her older brother as someone to compete with; A boy in a family of girls may feel more like the only child; And so on. As with everything in Adler’s system, birth order is to be understood in the context of the individual’s own special circumstances.