Always the Baby: Do You See Your Youngest Differently?
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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It’s a common experience. A child is a baby until the next child comes along, when the older child suddenly seems more capable and even bigger than she did just a few days before. Now, research confirms that parents actually change their perception of how large a child is once a new baby comes along.
Scientists in Australia asked 750 mothers of at least two children, aged two to six, if they remembered a change in size of their older child once a second child was born. Seventy percent of the mothers said they did. So researchers then asked mothers to estimate the height of their children and then compared these estimates to the children’s actual heights. What they found is surprising: estimates of the height of mothers’ oldest children were quite accurate but estimates of the height of their youngest children were too short by nearly three inches!
This finding might be merely amusing but it has important implications for parents. As lead researcher, Jordy Kaufman, points out, “we may treat our youngest children as if they are actually younger than they really are….Our research potentially explains why the ‘baby of the family’ never outgrows that label. To the parents, the baby of the family may always be ‘the baby.'”
This means that youngest children may be over-protected against ordinary life events. They may be indulged more than older children are. They may be kept childish longer, even into adolescence and beyond. It’s commonplace for parents to say they “learned how to parent” on their older children and were looser and less picky with their younger ones. But it might not be that parents just grow more mellow. They may actually see their younger children differently.
Is this a problem? Maybe. Here are some tips.
- Let your “baby” try hard things. Don’t always be on hand to smooth the way or to let him skip over developmental tasks. Don’t let your older children be so helpful the younger child’s abilities are stunted.
- Get your “baby” out into the wide world. Yes, she’s your youngest and every milestone she reaches signals your own last time to fulfill roles you’ve enjoyed with each of your kids. But being with her peers will help her grow up and will help you recognize her developing powers.
- Be supportive of your older children. The flip side of treating the youngest child as a baby is that older children may be treated as adults. This isn’t fair and it isn’t helpful. Be careful to provide to each of your children what he or she needs at points along the way, both opportunities to grow and opportunities to retreat for a while.
Each place in the family has its positive and negatives. Understanding how our own perceptions might add to each child’s experience helps us be more aware.
Love your babies, each and every one of them.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.