By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Debbie,
I’m not a firstborn child but have seen how my older sister, and first-borns in other families that I know, often shoulder responsibilities beyond those of the younger siblings. My sister was put in charge during after school time until our parents came home from work, then had duties to help get the family through dinner and bedtime. As an adult, she’s still the one our parents rely on the most for advice and assistance, including organizing family get togethers.
How can I prevent the burden of too much responsibility for my almost five-year-old when it’s so tempting to have him help out with the younger two, especially when I’m the only adult around?
Random Birth Order
Yes, the random assignment of birth order plays a role in family dynamics in childhood and beyond.
First-time parents undergo an identity change with the arrival of a newborn. This is the child who brings them into parenthood. A lot of the new parents’ thoughts regarding the baby are connected to themselves – from wondering which parent the baby resembles more closely to reflecting regularly on, “how are we doing?” as the baby responds to their less-than-confident efforts. This child amazes his parents with all his firsts – from first yawns and first smiles, to walking, to going off to school, to being the first to have an overnight away from home. A firstborn child is often brought into family decision-making discussions, even before he can add much to the conversation. Parents come to have a high level of expectation for the firstborn’s capabilities, spending more time talking with and directly teaching this child –Early Childhood Language and Literacy Development Articles (hanen.org)–
The oldest child in a family may therefore be more likely to identify with the adults’ perspectives, having had more undivided attention from them from the start, than are later born children. Parents naturally deem the firstborn to be the one who can help out or even take over for a parent, no matter what the child’s age is. This pattern of the oldest sibling being considered the most mature and responsible often persists throughout a lifetime.
Second and later born children are still amazing, however, let’s face it, there’s a huge difference between the abilities of even a one-year-old, who can toddle over to the book shelf and pick out the book he wants you to read, and a newborn.
The family that second-born and later-born children enter already has this amazing firstborn child in it. Like her parents, the new baby is in awe of what a human twice her size can do. This size difference decreases as the children grow, however other disparities exist for years. The older sibling holds an advantage in physical skills, language skills, problem solving skills, and social skills. Unique talents may emerge for each sibling, but the oldest child is unquestionably superior overall. He can read before the others can, he can ride a bike before the others can, and he’s able to deposit the library books in the book slot, while Mom and the others wait in the car, long before anyone else is offered the job. He’s truly a marvel worthy of admiration for the younger siblings. Even if they’re only one grade apart through school, a college freshman still looks up to her college sophomore sibling as a role model of what’s ahead, as well as for advice and approval.
Research on the longterm relationship between firstborns and their parents suggests that usually the premiere child in the family holds that position indefinitely. In many families the firstborn stays more closely connected to the parents and aligns his values and opinions closely with theirs. While younger siblings look for approval from the firstborn, the firstborn is most concerned with his parents’ approval.
Lessening the Burden
Just because a one-year-old might be able to understand and comply with your request for him to bring you a fresh diaper for the baby doesn’t necessarily mean you should be asking him to do this.
Try to have responsibilities for all of the children according to their ages and interests, but resist giving an older child a task that directly benefits a younger sibling. For example, it can be the baby’s job, by about six-months-old, to turn the light switch on or off. A toddler can bring you something you need for yourself, like a tissue box, rather than a diaper for the younger baby. By the age of three, a child can carry the bag of snacks from the house to the car. A four-year-old can put his clean clothes in the dresser drawers.
Use the democratic process for family decision-making, rather than only discussing things with the oldest, even if the younger siblings can’t speak. For example, throw in, “Baby brother really liked the swings at that other playground. Does everyone else agree to go to that one today?” Take turns among the children, for playground choices and other group decisions, to acknowledge that each family member’s wishes are important.
Make failure okay, especially for a firstborn child. Model staying focused and trying again, or deciding on a new approach, or deciding to put a task aside, when something you are doing isn’t working well. Guide your child (and the younger siblings, too) to do the same. “That’s okay. We can try again later.” As the children develop their individual interests, keep the focus on having fun, learning, and making friends rather than competition and awards.
To decrease a firstborn’s obsession with achieving big things and pleasing his parents, try to minimize your reactions to what he does and pay more attention to who he is. What is his favorite song? Favorite color? Favorite fruit? Favorite playground? Talk with him, and each of your children when they are old enough to do so, about their feelings, opinions, memories, and wishes. This helps each child get to know himself or herself, and know that you appreciate each as a unique individual.
Birth order doesn’t have to doom a child to extra responsibilities and pressures.
Dr. Wood will facilitate a workshop for parents and childcare professionals on “Stress with Children” on Saturday, August 7, 9:30 am to 12:30 pm at Chesapeake Children’s Museum.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.