Youngest Children Storm CC! (and other thoughts from week one of Personality)

Take a closer look at Colorado College’s website. You click the “welcome to CC” link, and the following words appear: “Welcome to doorways, horizons, and adventures. Welcome to the beginning of the rest of your life. Welcome to Colorado College. Start exploring now.”

These preliminary welcome statements, along with the rest of CC’s advertising, market the college as a place of adventure, a stimulating environment where students study abroad, take risks, and transform into artists and entrepreneurs. Start exploring now? Yes please, I’d love some adventure! Autonomy? Certainly! But wait a minute—my drive for excitement isn’t a trait specific to me. A love of adventure and risk is inherent in youngest children like myself. Is CC specifically seeking out the family “babies,” those of us who have struggled and fought to prove ourselves worthy of our siblings while synchronously forging our own distinct trail? Now that I think of it, many of my friends here are the youngest in their families…

But I jest. Though I’m the youngest of five, the first of the Wool siblings also attended CC, so the school does attract people from across the birth-order spectrum. Oldest children, you guys are supposed to be nurturing and protective of others, but also more concerned with meeting parents’ expectations. Second borns and middle children, you guys are typically less connected to your family and more to your friends, and you often de-identify from the firstborn. And only-children? You guys are mini-adults: self-sufficient, driven, and quite comfortable talking to people 20, 30, and 40 years older than you. Of course, these traits and characteristics associated with birth order aren’t always accurate predictors of personality. However, each birth order group—youngest, middle, or oldest—thinks it has it the hardest. In class, we broke into groups of oldest, middle, youngest, and only children. I know it’s hard to believe, but the oldest children thought life as the youngest was easy, arguing that paving the way is the most challenging task of all. We youngest, however, know that the oldest children have it easy (after all, you guys did get the front seat for, well, your whole life). It was quite humorous how skewed each group’s perception of the pros and cons of birth order turned out to be.

As I’ve learned in the first week of Personality, though, CC does seem to market itself in a way that should specifically appeal to youngest children. According to a Time magazine article discussing birth order we read, youngest children are more tolerant of risk (we often choose the kinds of sports that easily lead to injury, which might explain my brief fifth and sixth grade foray into rollerblading tricks), likelier to be artists, adventurers, and entrepreneurs, and frequently funnier than other siblings. With lots of older siblings running around, what better way to garner attention than cracking some jokes? I think the most fascinating research concerning we youngins, however, is that we tend to develop “theory of mind” up to a year earlier than our older siblings. When kids acquire theory of mind, they realize that everyone else in the world doesn’t automatically know what they know. Let’s say we show Harold, a mere 3 year old, a box of crayons. “What’s in the box, Harold?” “Cwayons!” he shouts. “Let’s see,” we say, and we open up the box of crayons only to reveal colored pencils inside! Harold astutely notes that colored pencils are in the box. “Okay, Harold,” we say, “when your sister Phoebe comes into the room, what will she think is in the box?” Harold looks smug. “Colored Pencils!”

Harold has not yet developed theory of mind, or the understanding that his sister and others do not inherently share his thoughts and feelings. Currently, researchers speculate that youngest children may develop theory of mind earlier than their elder siblings in order to understand and anticipate what others are thinking, an advantageous strategy in a world where everyone else seems bigger and powerful. Developing theory of mind early means an earlier development of empathy, the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and feel what that person feels, which might mean later born children are more adept at relating to others. Pretty cool stuff. I guess being the youngest has its perks.

Alfred Adler was the man behind all this stuff, the psychologist who first brought “family constellation,” or birth order, to the table as a contributor to personality development. Though his theory of Individual Psychology (a fascinating and optimistic stance in which social interest shapes our personalities) has largely been forgotten, research on sibling order continues (in fact, we’ve read multiple articles examining the effect of older brothers, sisters, and the like on personality). The first week of Personality has been devoted to theorists like Adler, Freud, and Carl Jung. Similar to Adler, each theorist has produced ideas that still generate research today. For instance, the Myers-Briggs personality test, which we got to take as homework, is based on Jung’s ideas of analytical psychology. Cool stuff.

Basically, the first week of personality was superb. We have analyzed our dreams from a Freudian perspective and a Jungian perspective, discussed how birth-order impacts personality, and contemplated why those Swedes are so damn happy. The top of our syllabus features one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes, spoken by Polonius in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine on self be true.” But who are you?