Second Child Syndrome (and other facets of birth order)

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It’s a well known truism that first born children tend to be leaders. In large families, they were often called upon to be surrogate mothers or fathers to the large brood their parents were too busy (or too tired) to manage on their own. With baby boomer parents, the tendency is for first borns to imbibe the expectations and aspirations of their high-achieving moms and dads. Consequently, they tend to be high achievers themselves, with a sense of independence and maturity often beyond their years.

This has certainly been the case with my oldest daughter, who has managed to outshine  her parents academically, socially, and physically, and will in due time no doubt surpass us in career success as well. In the movie Cheaper By the Dozen 2, the well-meaning but competitive father calls his first born daughter “Superstar,” expecting her to attend Harvard and take over the family business. By the end of the film, of course, he learns to let go of his expectations and allow her to follow her dreams. I hope we haven’t set our eldest child up for a breakdown at age 30 when she realizes she has only been trying to please us all this time.

Enter the second child. He or she soon learns how difficult it will be to measure up to the perfection of the older sibling and thus decides to become the opposite of the first born. Many, although not all, second children become underachievers or troublemakers to distinguish themselves from their older siblings. I have seen this syndrome not only in my own family, but in the children of many friends and acquaintances. As parents, we are appalled that our high expectations and methods of discipline are ineffective on child number two. It is a humbling experience to learn to accept your child on his or her own terms and to guide them toward adulthood with some of your dreams diminished.

From my point of view, the freest children are the subsequent ones after the first and second born. While still possibly competing with the older kids for attention and affection,  younger siblings seem to have more ability to be themselves rather than measure up to parental expectations. Our third child does care what we think of him. But he makes decisions based upon what he wants and not what we think. He has also had the benefit of our experience and sheer exhaustion, having raised the first two.

The baby of the family, of course, is infantilized for the longest period of time and tends to be spoiled. While never having gotten as much undivided attention as the older children, he or she benefits from our wistful sadness at this being our last one. I know I treat my youngest daughter as much more of a baby than I ever did my oldest one. This can cause problems when our pampered princes or princesses meet the real world, however, and realize they are not the cutest, most special things ever.

Birth order generalizations are, of course, just that. For instance, when there are more than a few years between the first and second born children, the competition is less fierce, and the younger one is less likely to react in opposition to the older one.  I also know plenty of families in which the children don’t seem to feel the need to react against the image created by an older sibling. And then there are only children, whose undisputed place as first in their parents’ hearts and minds gives them a different, perhaps more entitled, mindset.

I think research on birth order should be required reading for new parents. If I had realized that my ideals and techniques would not work equally with each child, I might have been more prepared for the roller coaster ride of parenthood. Still, I am grateful for the way each of my four children has taught me humility, patience, and trust. In the words of a great Who song, “The kids are all right.”

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