THE OLDEST CHILD

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
THE OLDEST CHILD
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Everyone expects the oldest to grow up quickly. The other children in the family treat her with respect but also expect her to be more generous and helpful than she may want to be.

When she grows tired of her “older child role,” she may turn on her siblings. “Leave me alone. Stop bugging me.”

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. And anyway, you’re the smart one in the family.” She may feel flattered by this kind of adoration, and she’ll do her best for a while.

But if she feels pressured, she may 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’ reliance on her to be the “oldest and most responsible.”

For example, when she’s asked to babysit, 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. Often this behavior is carried to extremes and not appreciated. “Mom, don’t let that little squirt come out of the house when my friends come over. He always ruins our games.” And, yet, at other times, the older child teaches her siblings the games she plays with her friends. This is a mixed blessing and a mixed role for the eldest, and a lot of responsibility, whether she likes it or not.

An oldest girl is expected to be a second mother; a boy, a second father and teacher. When the oldest tries to fight off this role, everyone is shocked. The oldest feels surprised and guilty. The younger ones feel abandoned. Predictably, the older child’s teaching and helping will be rebuffed, at other times, by the younger child: “I don’t need you. I can do it myself.”

Helping the Oldest Child Handle the Role of Responsibility

  • Try not to expect the oldest to be “too” responsible. Watch for signs of needing relief. Even if there is a large age gap, don’t expect the older one to do all the babysitting.
  • 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.
  • Value the older child for her uniqueness in the family, independent from any expectation for her to be the “oldest and the most responsible.” “I love it when you come in to sit on my bed and tell me about your day. It’s just like you were my little girl again when we used to cuddle and talk over everything you’d done.”
  • Let the oldest be a baby, too, when she needs to. Pushing too soon for an older child to give up “babyish” behavior like sucking her thumb or carrying her blanket everywhere is bound to backfire. Expect her to fall back on this behavior under pressure, and let her know that temporary backsliding is OK.
  • Try to free the older child from her siblings enough to have friends of her own, outside the family.

(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.)

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 heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, 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 Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.