Parenting Solutions: Oldest Child
"My son is the oldest of our three kids, and he's always complaining: Why does everyone always depend on me? Why is Mom so much stricter with me? Why do I have to take care of my dumb younger brother?This is disturbing to his younger brother and sister and to both of us parents. What can I do to help him recognize that there are advantages to being the oldest child? There's no way we can change his birth order!"
Did you know that almost all of the U.S. presidents were either the firstborn child or the firstborn son in their families? All but two of the first astronauts sent into space were firstborns, and the other two were "only children." The eldest child is more likely to be confident, organized, intelligent, determined, eager to please, and a leader. This is also the sibling more prone to become a CEO, win a Nobel Prize, and be more academically successful as well as financially secure.24 There's no doubt that being the firstborn has clear advantages. This is the only child who will receive our undivided attention and one-on-one time, and research shows that this makes a big difference in how they turn out.
A Norwegian study led by psychologist Petter Kristenson meticulously analyzed IQ scores of 250,000 men and found that the oldest child is smarter than the next oldest sibling by an average of 2.3 points (who in turn beat the third-born brother by 1.1 points).25 Although 2.3 points may seem measly, in today's test-crazed society they can be just enough to give a child an academic edge and be the difference between earning a B+ or an A, going to a state school or a university. But here's the real kicker: if the eldest child dies, the second sibling becomes the smartest one. That means it's not just the birth order that boosts those IQ points but the dynamics in the family and how the firstborn is treated. It appears that our parenting really does make a difference when it comes to giving our eldest a clear intellectual edge.
With all those positives, how could there possibly be a problem with being the oldest kid? Well, consider things from your eldest's view. There is a downside to being the oldest, and even though you can't change his family rank, there are a few solutions to help this kid turn out the best he can be (as well as relax and enjoy life just a tad more).
- Focus on your other kids. Watch out! A few researchers find that parents do have favorites, and as much as we'd never admit it, we often favor our firstborn child. After all, that first birth is a life-changing, incredible event. And although that's a huge boost for your elder kid's self-esteem, it also can fuel sibling rivalry. Those jealousies can linger for a long time and cause a wedge between your eldest and his younger sibs. So beware of your interactions with your kids and ask yourself now and then, "Does each child feel I love him best?"
- Watch those responsibilities. We give our elder kids more responsibilities, and we just plain expect more of them at a younger age. But are you expecting too much? The eldest kid hates being told, "You're in charge of the house until I get back" or "You're the oldest, so I expect more of you." Every now and then take a reality check to make sure you're not imposing too many responsibilities on this kid or treating him as if he were older than his chronological age. (And do temper those "You're the man around the house" comments at least until he (or she) comes of age.)
- Relax and take ten. Although the firstborn has the clear advantage of having our undivided attention (at least until the next sibling comes along), he also stands the chance of being the most stressed. We really are stricter with our eldest child and let their younger siblings get away with far more.26 We do inflate our expectations a bit for our first and expect more from him. Because this is our first-time parenting experience, we're more overly anxious in our response to this kid.27 It's one reason the firstborn child usually is more anxious—our expectations and stress rub off on him. Take a few deliberate breaths before responding to your first (he is also more clued in to your reactions and feeds off your stress). And maybe pare down those expectations just a wee, wee bit.
- Let your child go his own way. Birth dynamics play an interesting role in how our kids turn out. We are tenser and have higher expectations for our oldest, and he tends to be a less of a risk taker, sticking to the path we've forged for him. Research also finds that we encourage our eldest child to pursue more cognitive and analytical interests that could lead to more prestigious careers like law or medicine.28 (We also tend to be more open and relaxed with our younger child and far more receptive to letting him stray off that "straight and narrow" path to follow his more artistic and creative interests and become the poet or graphic artist.) The key is to identify from the get-go your oldest child's unique passions and strengths so that he can become his own person and develop those interests that may lead him to the career of his dreams. And while you're at it, encourage him to deviate a bit from the norm, take a risk, and think outside the box as his younger siblings do.
- Let your child tutor his younger sibling. The eldest child has another benefit: he has a younger sibling to help. "Can you teach your brother how to read?" "Will you show your sister how to turn on the computer?" Teaching someone a skill helps not only the tutored but also the tutor. In fact, in many cases, the oldest child gains the most (IQ-wise, anyway) from teaching his younger sibling. So, assuming he's willing and has the time, encourage your eldest to mentor and teach. Just remember to use the same strategy for your other kids so they can benefit as well.
- Watch out for allergies. A review of over fifty studies found that the oldest kids are more likely to suffer from hay fever, eczema, and other allergies.29 One hypothesis: the eldest is overprotected and not exposed to those germs and bacteria, and so is far more susceptible to colds and likely to develop a weaker immune system (whereas the younger siblings battle the bugs at home before they start school and develop a stronger immune system to fight off those germs later on). Some doctors contend that all those colds firstborn kids tend to catch are really allergies in disguise. (The most pronounced symptom of an allergy is an itchy nose and no fever, ache, or chills.)
Now if we could just figure out a way to redefine success so that we don't get so crazed thinking it's all about IQ. Research shows that in the real world, IQ doesn't make much of a difference in achieving success. (Really!) What does matter for our oldest child is making sure he takes time to enjoy life and smell the roses.
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