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In your family, are you the Youngest? Oldest? Middle? (Korean birth order)

출생. Birth Order.

I would venture that most Westerners don’t immediately think of birth order as a common source of personality distinction but that doesn’t mean we don’t think about it. Sure enough, once we get to know someone, we are not surprised once we find out that they are indeed needy for attention because they’re the middle kid. To discover that a bossy ‘A’ type personality is the oldest in her family doesn’t exactly shock us.

As someone who studied early childhood development as an undergraduate, I’m particularly interested in how birth order affects children and their personalities as they develop. Take a look at this chart for a typical Western perspective.

Korean birth order personality KC101

The main difference I find is that Koreans seem to 1) simply ask the question to determine birth order sooner than Westerners and 2) they place slightly more importance on the implications than we do. Other than that, needless stereotypes and broad generalizations seem to exist in both cultures. So, if you’re the youngest and get offended by the following guide, don’t. It’s just a generalization.
So, let’s get some of the language down:

첫째 (맏이) : first born
장남 (맏아들) (長男) : first born son
장녀 (맏딸) (長女) : first born daughter
They can be reliable, have leadership qualities and try to take care of their younger siblings. Traditionally, only sons would inherit all of the family’s power and properties so it would have been natural to be adaptive towards him. The first born daughter has the same responsibilities of taking care of the siblings but has virtually none of the same rights. However, this is changing a little bit.

둘째: the second born
차남(次男) : second born son
차녀(次女) : second born daughter
Always a troublemaker. No responsibilities, no rights, starving for attention. If you will, an alien amongst the siblings. A large number of 둘째 are also 막내 at the same time – especially people born after the 1970s. This trend is due to 박정희’s birth-control policy with its famous catchphrase, “아들 딸 구별 말고 둘만 낳아 잘 기르자.”

셋째 : the third born
삼남 (三男) : third born son
삼녀 (三女) : third born daughter
No special image for third sons but the third daughter is thought to be the most beautiful. This kind of thinking was evident in a traditional song “최진사댁 셋 째딸”. If you’re the third daughter, consider yourself hot.

막내 : the last born / youngest
막내 딸 : youngest daughter
막내 아들 : youngest son
Lovely, playful, outgoing. Sometimes they are considered to be selfish. It’s also common to think that they don’t have any real family responsibilities. 막내 are always a child to his/her siblings. This is especially true for only male 막내 who has only 누나s.

외동 : the only child
외동아들 (독자) (獨子) : only son
외동딸 (독녀) (獨女) : only daughter
Sorry but you guys are considered to be rude, selfish, and self-centered. They always do whatever they want in their home. All other family members support the 외동 as much as they can. Koreans love sons, so if you’re 외아들, you got it made in the shade.

additional notes: If a man has two 누나s, the first one is his 첫째 누나 and the second oldest one would be his 둘째 누나. Also, since we call anybody 오빠/누나/언니/형/동생 if you want to emphasize it’s your real, blood-related 오빠/언니/누나/형/동생 we sometimes put 친 in front of the title. For example, 친형 and 친누나. For more insight on the confusing kinship terms, you know where to look.

So, where were we? Ah yes, over-generalizations.

Take me for example: I’m the cutest one in my family and I know it. I have the least amount of responsibility. I expect everyone to do something for me. It’s awesome. I’m a typical 막내.

Hate me yet? Don’t forget to swallow my blog posts with a heaping spoonful of sarcasm. It tastes better that way.

On the sunny side of things, birth order is enough for some to try to make a living off of guiding people to ‘true love’ using their birth order as a determining factor in their romantic endeavors. No, really. They do. On the fatalistic side of things, some even go as far to claim that birth order helps determine sexual preferences. Another look can be found here, too. I wonder how this plays out in Korea. My guess is that it isn’t even considered…

However, if Korea continues to follow its current trend of low birth numbers, this personality scape-goating may be soon not apply but to only children. Take a look at the fertility rate in Korea, though to see what I’m talking about. Times certainly have changed and they don’t seem to be showing signs of stopping. One has to wonder who will step in and fill in the fertility gap

For more on the subject, this TIME article is nice short read. Here’s a 2004 paper written on the subject for those interested. Three bucks too much to pay? In that case, got an 오백원? Buy this paper about the myths surrounding birth order. And then send me a copy. UPDATE: or just read this hastily copy and paste version, instead. Lastly, this short article is available in both Korean and English.

Korean translation help courtesy of 김선재 and 안효진.