Sibling birth order is a theory which suggests that a person’s birth order in the family (oldest child, middle child, baby, only child) affects the personality they have throughout life. I have a cousin – the oldest of two – who was very into this theory when we were growing up. After watching the three siblings on eight seasons of Charmed over the last dozen years [yes, I still watch it in repeats, too], I think the writers must have been obsessed with sibling birth order theory.
Sibling Birth Order – The Oldest Child
According to sibling birth order relationship theories, the oldest child is the responsible one, who often feels a need to parent or protect his/her younger siblings. The oldest child also, according to these theories, feels guilt when she thinks she has failed to protect her siblings. Prue Halliwell at the beginning of the series fit this stereotype perfectly. She always took charge of the situation and tried to protect her sisters. When she was not “the strong one,” she took it as a personal failure.
Later, after Prue died, the siblings’ relationship changed, and Piper, formerly the middle child, took over this oldest sibling role. Her character immediately went from having traits typical of middle children to having the oldest child’s protective traits. Perhaps the change is also attributable to the fact that she became a mother, but since the personality change occurred before her children were born, I have to lean toward the theory that the Charmed writers were just so enamored with sibling birth order theory, that they wanted to ensure the character arc followed the theory.
Sibling Birth Order – The Middle Child
Nearly everyone is familiar with “the middle child syndrome.” Sibling birth order theory posits that the middle child often feels neglected – neither the beloved first child who got to share one-on-one time with mom and dad, nor the favored baby. Middle children are thought to feel insecure or out of place, because of this birth order relationship. Piper fit this middle child stereotype to a tee in the seasons prior to Prue’s death. After Piper ascended to oldest child status however, Phoebe, the former baby moved into the middle child role almost seamlessly.
Sibling Birth Order – The Baby/Only Child
According to sibling birth order theory, youngest and only children are very similar, although there are some differences. Both placements are thought to be the beloved, spoiled, overly indulged children, because they are never displaced as the baby. The youngest child, as opposed to the only child, is also thought to constantly need and crave protection, because they constantly received it from both parents and siblings. The theory also states that they feel a sense of inadequacy, despite all this attention, because they can never measure up to their older siblings.
Phoebe completely fit the youngest child stereotype in the beginning of the series. She was the child who was always in trouble, but constantly pulled out of it by her older siblings. She often compared herself to them and felt inadequate. Then, after Prue died and Piper and Phoebe discovered their younger half-sister, Paige – formerly an only child – fell into the baby role. Like Phoebe before her, she was the always-in-trouble little sister who frequently complained about never being as good as her big sisters, and who was often protected by them.
Although a lot of shows play into the sibling birth order stereotypes, I think Charmed, because of the way all of the sister’s’ personalities changed as soon as their birth order changed, was the most obvious about it. I’ll admit, despite its detractors, there is something to the theory. However, I also think that there can’t be so much to the theory that one life event that shifts the birth order magically (pun intended) changes your personality!