NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
BIRTH ORDER’S IMPACT
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.
Birth order is often used – both by children and by parents – to explain siblings’ different personalities. Of course, being the first, last or in the middle will influence each child’s behavior.
But it is harder to use birth order to predict who a child will become than some may think. So many other factors determine personality, too – the years between siblings, gender, each child’s temperament and the whole range of life experiences. No wonder different birth order researchers seem to come up with different results.
Everyone expects the oldest to grow up quickly. The other children treat her with respect but also expect her to be more generous, more helpful than she may want to be.
When she grows tired of her “oldest child role,” she may turn on them. “Leave me alone. Stop bugging me.” This may feel like a desertion if the younger sibling is used to being nurtured and cared for by her.
An oldest child may be expected to be an athlete or a “brain.” “Help me with my homework. You’ve already learned how to do it.” She may feel flattered by this kind of adoration, and she’ll do her best – for a while.
But she may also feel the pressure of this role, and rebel. She may turn on a younger sibling and treat him mercilessly. She may even take out on him the anger she feels about her parents’ pressure for her to be the “oldest and most responsible.” For example, when she’s asked to baby-sit, she may find a way to dodge the role. Or she may make a sibling’s life so miserable that she isn’t asked again.
No matter how the oldest child behaves, she is likely to be a role model for younger siblings. Watch a toddler become hooked on an older child’s ball throwing. He’ll shape his hands in imitation, even if he must still throw with both hands. His eyes and his adoration show how much he values the older child as a teacher.
A younger sibling follows the oldest one around like a puppy dog. Often, this behavior is carried to extremes, and it is not appreciated. “Mom, don’t let that little squirt come out of the house when my friends come over.”
And yet, an oldest girl is expected to be a second mother, a boy a second father and teacher. That’s a mixed blessing and a mixed role for the eldest, and a lot of responsibility, whether she likes it or not.
HELPING THE OLDEST CHILD HANDLE RESPONSIBILITY
- Try not to expect the oldest to be “too” responsible. Watch for signs of needing relief from the role. Praise the older child for the responsibility she demonstrates at times when you have not requested it. But be aware that too much praise represents pressure.
- Let the oldest be a baby, too, when she needs to. Pushing an older child too soon to give up sucking her thumb, or carrying her blanket everywhere, or other “babyish” behaviors is bound to backfire. Expect her to fall back on these under pressure, and let her know that such temporary backsliding is okay.
- Try to free the older child up from her siblings enough to have friends of her own, outside the family.
A middle child starts out as the youngest sibling, and was the oldest child’s “baby.” He has worked hard to find his niche in the family, both wooing and competing with the older child. Suddenly, another baby comes along. Everyone is ecstatic. Everyone except him.
All of them concentrate on this new baby – including the older child. The middle child is deserted by everyone, including his rival, whom he can no longer even provoke into a squabble.
The second child is now a “middle child.” To him, being in the middle feels like being forgotten. He may try to provoke, to show off, to cry out for someone – anyone. Unless a parent hears this cry, he continues to be without a sounding board, without a reliable advocate. Some middle children learn to turn their wish to be cared for into caring for others – later.
A middle child may try to make up for his loneliness with friends. But he may seem irritable, and depressed. Parents will ask, “Why are you so upset? Isn’t she a cute baby? Look at her watch you, adoring you.” Of course, she looks at everybody that way because they all adore her. The eyes and the winning smile everyone saves for the baby makes the middle child “want to puke.” How could he ever like her?
In time, the middle child may start to mother the baby. But when the baby screeches, he wants to swat her over the head. But he doesn’t, and soon he may find that he can woo the baby from his older sister. Not often, but just enough to make it worth the effort. When he fails, he’ll battle with the little one.
The myth of the “middle child,” and parents’ worries about it, may be more powerful than its reality. My middle daughter can always get at me when she says, “You treat me like a middle child!” Do I? I don’t think so, until she accuses me of it.
The “book end” children do have special places, but maybe the middle is a special place as well. A middle child isn’t as likely to be as overwhelmed as the first child, nor as overprotected as the baby. It may be a freer spot to be in. One can always just disappear in a crisis. Some middle children even figure out how to use this position in the family to ensure that no one expects as much of them.
Some middle children find they have unique creative gifts that allow them to distinguish themselves from the firstborn in their families. Others will learn to be the peacemakers; they will mediate conflicts and feel responsible for everyone’s well-being. They feel the pressure, but also the rewards of being in the middle.
HELPING THE MIDDLE CHILD FEEL VALUED
- Remind a middle child of his talents. Praise him for his resilience, in adjusting to the baby and finding his own role.
- Let the middle child groan and complain, even blow up about how hard he works to be a contributing member of the family. As he feels heard, he will learn a lot about himself.
- Face whatever bias you may have about a middle child.
- Don’t feel sorry for him. Pity will only push a child to focus on the negative aspects of his situation. Every position in the family has its rewards and burdens. The give-and-take demanded of each child is the cement that makes the family strong.
THE LAST CHILD -THE “BABY”
Everyone loves the baby – as long as he is the baby. He gets used to being adored. He knows when to dodge the sibling just above. The rest of the family makes allowances for the youngest child.
Then, all of a sudden, he begins to grow up. No longer do his babyish wiles help. When he battles over something he wants, suddenly everyone labels him as “spoiled.” His older siblings desert him. (They’ve waited patiently.)
Being cute doesn’t cut it any more. The pressure to leave the “baby” role behind often weighs more heavily on boys than on girls; in girls, appeals of being “fragile” and “helpless” are still more likely to be tolerated.
In search of a niche, the youngest child may become a rebel, or an unexpected performer. He may not fit in with the rest of the family’s patterns. He can be unique and surprising. But if less has always been expected of him, he may learn to expect less of himself.
If the youngest regresses to baby-like behavior at home, it is still likely to draw his parents in. But he will pay the price of being the butt of his siblings’ disapproval. He may then resort to bravado or rebellion. But when his siblings accept him, he blossoms. He will have learned a great deal about adapting to his more grown-up role, and about giving up his babyish one for new rewards.
HOW TO HELP THE YOUNGEST CHILD GROW UP
- Value his struggle to keep up with older siblings.
- Comfort him when he needs it. But remember that the role of a baby cannot last. He needs to value the new abilities he can develop.
- Remind yourself how much you love having a baby and how you may be prolonging his baby role.
- Be ready for his accusation: “You always treat me like a baby.” You probably do. Apologize, and let him know that you’ll try to stop, though you may not always succeed.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.