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.
Let’s face it: spacing children isn’t something we parents always have under total control. Not only do pregnancies occur sometimes when we weren’t planning on them but sometimes children come in multiples without any planning on our part at all, so that there’s no space between siblings.
In addition, there are good reasons to space children close together. Parents get past the preschool years quickly and can get back to work or whatever else they were doing “before babies.” Siblings near in age to each other make natural playmates.
New evidence supports the idea, though, that special advantages emerge when children are spaced more widely apart. More space between babies tends to increase children’s chances of reaching higher levels of achievement.
Researchers followed 3532 children from 1503 sibling groups in the United Kingdom. They found, as previous studies have, that first-born are more ambitious than later-born siblings. For example, they found that first-born kids were 7% more likely to complete their educations than their younger brothers and sisters. First-born children were much more likely (16% more) to go on to earn advanced degrees than later-born children.
They also found that girls are more likely to achieve higher educational attainment than boys are, with 13% more girls than boys finishing the equivalent of high school and 4% more girls than boys earning an advanced degree.
But there’s not much we can do about a child’s status as first- or later-born and there’s not much we can do about a child’s sex. What we can do something about is spacing. And the study found that wider spacing between siblings contributes to significantly higher achievement for all children in the family.
Wider spacing means that younger children get more adult attention, since their earlier-born siblings may be more independent and take up less of a parent’s time. It may also mean that with wider spacing later-born children are raised by older, more experienced parents, which confers an advantage similar to being the first-born, center-of-the-universe child of younger parents. Wider spacing among siblings provides later-born children with an accomplished sibling role model that may inspire early achievement as younger kids try to keep up with their older brothers and sisters.
What does this mean for you?
First, if you intend to have more than one child, consider all possible factors surrounding spacing of babies. These factors may be economic factors related to parents’ careers or children’s future tuition needs, logistical factors related to extended family support, geographic location, and parents’ own educational or business plans, and simple preference. The key is to think things through.
Second, no matter what a child’s position within the family, keep in mind that every position has its advantages and disadvantages. First-children are Mom and Dad’s “guinea pigs” on which they hone their parenting skills. Later-children might enjoy more relaxed parenting but also less pressure to achieve. The ups and downs of family life mean that each position in the family experiences a different set of influences.
Finally, remember that each child is an individual, not a position in a set of siblings. Old notions of the inevitable influence of being the eldest, the middle child, or the baby become self-fulfilling prophecies if they determine parents’ expectations for each child. Studies like the UK study present general truths, not the particular truth of your special family.
© 2014, 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.
It’s true that over half the American presidents and a majority of Nobel prize winners were first-born children. This might make you think that there’s something special about the juju that makes up that first embryo and that the raw material of follow-up siblings is just not so good. As a second-born child myself, I beg to differ.
What is different for first-borns is the situation into which they’re born. Just a comparison of first-born and later-born baby scrapbooks will tell you: first-borns are the center of attention and later-borns not so much. First-borns have only adults to talk to. First-borns are fussed over and worried about. Everything first-borns do involves some major decision. It’s hard not to think you’re special with all that special attention. From first word to first day at school to first day of college, first-borns are the center of their parents’ world.
Later-borns benefit from the experience their parents gained while practicing on Kid #1. They often live in a more relaxed world and have their older sibling to break the ground for them and show them how to manage the tasks of childhood and adolescence. So it’s no wonder that later-borns tend to be not quite so driven and not quite so anxious for success as their older brother or sister is.
The first child in the family enjoys the undivided attention of his parents. No matter what other distractions his parents might have, this kid gets all the attention his parents can spare. The key in raising Child #2 and #3 is to pay a similar amount of attention.
Later-born siblings have smaller vocabularies, on average, than first-borns. Since the number of words a person knows is related to his ability to grasp concepts, vocabulary is a key item. One thing you can do to support the development of your second and third children is to talk with them. It’s easy to let the older child speak for all the kids—he is, after all, older and more articulate than his younger brother and sister. And in the hectic environment of most households, and especially households with several children, it’s hard to find time for the explanations and discussions you had with Child #1. But talking with all your children, and listening to what each one has to say, is one of the ways you can give all your kids the advantages the first kid had.
A second suggestion is to remember that all children in the family are unique and not duplicates of each other. Sometimes parents promote a ”family brand,” like “We’re the Jacksons and we all sing and play music.” Take time to find out the interests of your younger children, just as you did for your first-born child, and don’t assume that he’s a clone of his older sibling.
Having siblings adds to the richness of family life, especially if everyone can shine. With every new child in the family, life gets more complex and it’s hard to fit everything, and everyone, in. But treating every child like a first born is a good goal to have.
We all want to be number one.
© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.