Big Families and Small Ones: What About the Roles?
Over the last four weeks we have examined the four roles children assume when they are raised in a home with an emotionally absent parent. Psychology seems to have a predilection for models of four; in this case the hero, rebel, lost child and mascot. In healthy families, children’s behavior flows across all four roles. But in these families, children will adopt one of the roles and live by its parametes more than any other. It’s as if they become rigid with the chosen role and lack the ability to see another method of dealing with life.
One of the repeating comments I’ve received is the question “What about my family? We have fewer or more than four children. How does this apply to us?’
If your family has fewer than four children, they will usually double up on the roles.
One child in a family may adapt any role but they are usually the hero. There are more first borns and only children in ‘Who’s Who’ than any other birth position. It seems reasonable that an only child, surrounded by adults would work overtime to succeed – to meet the expectations of the parents. In being the hero, they become little adults before their chronological age puts them in adulthood.
However, the second most likely role for only children is the rebel/scapegoat. This outcome is also reasonable – children faced with the demands of a home with out emotionally engaged parents may give up, act out, and defy every suggestion, rule or demand made of them.
When there are two children, these two roles are also most commonly adopted. But the roles of these children are often flavored with the other two roles. So the hero often additionally adopts the lost child role – it’s hard to succeed unless you’re studying, working, and putting in the time – usually away from home. In this situation, the rebel will often adopt the mascot role. So they’re rebelling but with a bit of humor thrown in.
When the family consists of three children, each will adopt one role, except for one child who will double up. The most common example of this family is from a popular sitcom from many years ago: Happy Days. Richie is the hero, Joanie, his younger sister is the lost child (admit it, you have to think to remember her name). But the Fonz is the third young person in this family (even though he’s not born to the Bosley’s). He’s the rebel – living in a way that is totally antithetical to their values. But his humor is what makes him tolerable to all of them. So he’s the rebel coupled with the mascot. Obviously, this is entertainment so the fit isn’t perfect, but the family dynamics show these principles.
When there are more than four children, roles are repeated. How it works out is determined by age spread between the siblings, family dynamics and family expectations.
For example, when there is a significant spread between the age of the first child and their nearest sibling who is the oldest of a ‘younger group’, the oldest child is usually a hero. But in that group of siblings, the roles are distributed as above. For example the oldest child is 4 when the sibling is born and then four children in four years: the oldest is the hero usually and then the younger four take on all four roles. Needless to say the two heroes in this family will not likely get along – they’re too much alike. Although this is often not true for rebels – they may get into trouble together.
Another factor in this model is multiple births. A client of mine was the youngest of three and when she was four, mom had triplets. The oldest child was the hero, the second was the lost child who moved away and my client was the rebel who has a wicked sense of humor. Understand that this is a family of doctors, so when my client decided to beome an IT person she was seen as a failure. The triplets were an entity unto themselves and the roles all showed up in that grouping of three.
I have consistently encouraged you not to look at your families, and yet I know some of you have ignored that recommendation. It’s natural to want to see where we fit into a model. Please remember that I have provided the simplest of information in these posts. If it fits, that’s great. I hope it helps you understand your family and friends better. But don’t try to force anything. This is one of many models of family dynamics. It’s one I understand and helps me work with my clients. But it’s not the be-all or end-all of models.
Thursday we’ll look at pairing and relationships. What works and what creates challenges.
As always I look forward to your comments and questions. It’s been an interesting dialogue and I look forward to your opinions.