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January 31, 2013

Second child syndrome

By Carol Lloyd Executive Editor

“First one breaks, second one bounces.” 


Z, my second daughter, has benefitted from the classic second-child upbringing… she slept most of her way through her first year (and we let her!)   Her elder sister, T, was what is known nowadays as a “sensitive” toddler, prone to biting best friends, operatic meltdowns, extravagant wish lists and inscrutable insecurities.  Baby Z couldn’t get a word in edgewise until she was two, when  she found her voice and hasn’t stopped yammering, falling on her head, blubbering and then laughing like a hyena.   She’s great: tough, easy going, hilariously out of control at times, but never, ever, frail.  Early on she learned to sleep and play on her own, reprogram my cell phone and find my car keys.  Now she spends hours exploring her favorite subject: African American women’s history.

At age 9 she’s a happy, rambunctious grade-schooler, so we tell her to pipe down and be patient. After all, her elder sister, who has been diagnosed with a murky multifactorial diagnosis which manifests as keen annoyance at noises she doesn’t like, has to do her homework and we all know a 7th grader’s homework is more important than a 3rd graders, right? 

It’s not that we don’t dote on Z.  We do.  And if we thought she needed it, we would have Z diagnosed with whatever expert-stamped pathology would get her the extra help she needed.  We just don’t think she needs it. But of course, I don’t know that we would have thought T needed it back when she showed a slight reading lag, had she not been Daughter Number 1 to two aging professionals, with all the OCD passion that those circumstances evoke. Now in middle school, my elder embodies all the earmarks of first born privilege: she’s accomplished and ambitious, high strung and demanding.

Growing up in the hot house

In an era when parents often display the hyperactive solicitude of a dowager ministering to her award-winning orchids, many first children suffer from hothouse syndrome. They are the center of a dangerous and precarious universe, growing up in the fun house of their parents’ refracted identities, great expectations, and dreams. 

The second child can never ignite that same fanatical focus -- which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your child and their particular needs.  If your first born is a breeze and your parenting seems to forge a multilingual straight A piano prodigy, and the second one comes along unwilling to sing to the same alfa melody (as was the case with Tiger mother Amy Chua) the second child becomes a humbling lesson in social emotional learning for the parents.  If on the other hand, the second child gets a lot less pressure and a lot more room to think, they can thrive in a very different way.  

Ironically, the awareness of the second child’s special lack of parental fixation has spawned its own anxious diagnostics in the blogosphere: “second child syndrome.” How do you know if your child is suffering from this syndrome?  They either distance themselves emotionally or get especially upset, try harder for parental approval or try less, get in trouble or try to be nice all the time (you get the point, could be any child at any time).  Yet it’s only in a culture that has obsessively embraced “cultivation parenting” that this syndrome could even exist.  What about the 3rd, 4th, and 5th children or the 12th? Perhaps what we’re really facing is an epidemic of first-child syndrome.

"The cat ate my homework"

Lately my husband and I have been trying to balance the scales and give Z more attention. Ever vigilant to signs she’s playing second fiddle to her older sister, she always ready to throw down the gauntlet and declare injustice. She’s begun to procrastinate on her homework or come up with bizarre explanations as to why she lost it. I can't blame her: now that my elder toils four hours a day on polynomials and memorizing the process of meiosis, it’s hard to sit with Z as she hammers out multiplication tables she could do in her sleep.

Either way, both daughters have benefitted from what the other has missed – the confidence that comes from parental attention. versus the confidence that comes from learning for oneself.  No childhood is perfect and theirs won’t be either.  In the meantime, I’m learning from my second daughter things I never thought I’d learn from a 9-year-old: like Harriet Tubman’s real name and how to fall on the ground, bang your head and keep laughing.


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This is so interesting. Since my kids are 10 1/2 years apart, we're reliving every stage as we did with my son a decade ago. Along with comparing the differences, we're *much* more involved in her goings on. Part of that I attribute to the difference between having a boy versus a girl. Another part is being keenly aware this is our last hurrah of each stage.

Where we were hyper-involved making sure our forgetful son would turn in his work, we're hyper-involved in our daughter's schools and her education overall.

And if your "Z" is the same as my "Z" she was named for life force. Which that alone will create it's own direction.

Birth order has something to do with personalities, but remember, they are no right answers--we all just do the best we can with the time and skills set we have.

I joined my family 8 and 11 year after the birth of my older brothers and I got the best of both worlds: lots of attention, siblings, but little competition and a great deal of perspective from watching them struggle with my parents. My parents were older which in this case made them wiser and they chose to raise me with slightly different values which I appreciate.

I don't think birth order is the holy grail for personalities but I do think it influences parental behavior which often leaves its stamp on the psyche of the child. Ironically, since I wrote this blog a few days ago my younger daughter's second child rage has ramped up and my first child noticing that I'm trying to spend more quality time with younger just started bellyaching like crazy about how she never gets enough attention. At 9 pm last night I called them sternly to the couch and told them in my most authoritative voice that I loved them both and wanted to spend as much time as I could with both of them BUT their complaining about not getting enough attention was making my life not very fun. I actually used the words "this is not acceptable." The hilarious thing was that my elder daughter by far the biggest belly acher listened intently and later told me, "I actually didn't know it wasn't acceptable. It never occurred to me that I wasn't supposed to be doing this. I'm really sorry." Go figure. Sometimes I'm baffled at what works!

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