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The Pecking Order

Author Dalton Conley discusses why genetics are only a small part of the picture.by Lois Gilman



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How many children should you have and how should they be spaced? And how much does nature have to do with the way a child turns out? Any parent—adoptive or biological—wondering why children in the same family fare so differently in the world should read Dalton Conley’s new book, The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.

While The Pecking Order doesn’t directly address adoption, the findings—drawn from national data as well as from interviews with 175 siblings—shed light on the differences that develop in every home. Conley points out the surprising fact that differences between adult siblings account for 75% of the income disparities in the United States. Contrary to expectation, only a quarter of income inequality is, in fact, accounted for by differences between families. So, according to Conley, genetics are only a small part of the picture. Recently, we spoke with the author to learn more about his theories and their relation to adoptive families.

Adoptive Families: What is the family pecking order?
Dalton Conley: The pecking order is the hierarchy of the siblings within the family in terms of conventionally defined socioeconomic success—prestige of their jobs, education level, and accumulated wealth.

AF: How do you explain the vast differences in achievement between children in the same family? Is this due to quirk? Fate? Chance?
D.C.: The answer is all of the above. In other words, the answer is innate ability, the economic trajectory of the family, changes such as parental death or divorce, family size, parental attention, geographic mobility, peer and mentor influences, even sexual and religious orientation. The family is a bubbling cauldron, not a simple sorting machine. So, sorry to say, there is no simple answer.

AF: What is the impact on siblings of being in a very large family? And what did you learn, if anything, about middle children?
D.C.: There are many advantages to large families in terms of warmth and being part of something larger than oneself. But there are corresponding disadvantages. Simply put, family resources are more or less fixed. Though their love may be infinite, parents do not have inexhaustible supplies of money, attention, and energy.

In my data it was clear that the middle was the worst position to be in, largely because middle siblings rarely get individual attention from their parents. They are forever comparing themselves to their older and younger siblings. In families with three or more kids, the middle children were less likely to get educational investment and therefore more likely to fail educationally.

However, other changes in the family—economic circumstances, family trauma such as death or divorce, and many other factors—are often more important than birth order.

AF: What are your thoughts regarding birth-order theories?
D.C.: I find no effect of birth order in families of two children. When middle-child issues come up in larger families, it’s actually more about how parental resources get sliced up rather than psychological factors related to birth position.

AF: Many adoptive families struggle with the question of whether or not to adopt again so that their child will have a sibling. Should they be concerned about this?
D.C.: No. Resources only become constrained after two children.

AF: What do you think of twin studies of adoptees?
D.C.: These studies have flaws. Namely, people see twins reared apart and pick out a few similar traits that they notice—love of cigars, preference in clothes, income, etc.—and then say, “Eureka! It must be genetic!”

We have to keep in mind that twins reared apart may still have environmental similarities—for example, they both live in families that value adoption, and are often not far apart geographically or socioeconomically.

AF: You looked at some adoptive families. What did you learn about adopted siblings?
D.C.: When we think about families formed by adoption, we focus on the lack of genetic linkage between parent and child. I would argue that almost as important—if not more so—is the fact that adoption is such a strong family narrative that the social aspects of family life deserve as much attention as the non-genetic aspects.

AF: You described one adoptive family in which the parents emphasized the genetic differences between the children. How did this affect them?
D.C.: This mother caused a great deal of damage by using her children’s genetic unrelatedness to label them. But the lesson here is that genetic differences may provide a narrative structure for a parent who is inclined to label her kids. Had these been her birth children, this parent would probably have found another way to pigeonhole them—say, birth order.

AF: Have you looked at families where there are both adopted children and birth children?
D.C.: Yes, and the dynamics play out as in all families, sometimes with added twists when the birthparents come into the picture, or when there are racial differences in the family, or when the child uses her adoptive status to assert her independence.

AF: Any advice for adoptive parents?
D.C.: It would be the same as for birthparents: Don’t have too many kids, and nurture them all as best you can. If you are going through a divorce or the death of a spouse, don’t lean too heavily on the eldest. If you are a stay-at-home mom, make sure your daughter has a positive female role model in the world of professional work.

Lois Gilman is the author of The Adoption Resource Book and the mother of two adult children adopted internationally.

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