The Second Child

The Second Child

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Being the secondborn has its challenges

Four-year-old Michael sits wide-eyed on his father’s shoulders, watching his 7-year-old sister Rebecca take part in a swimming competition. The whistle blows, she jumps into the water, swims quickly to the other side of the pool, and wins the race.

Rebecca is Michael’s idol. It’s been that way since he was a small baby, sitting in his high chair watching her making funny faces at him.

Having an older sibling can be a great plus for the second child. She may teach him how to whistle and tie his shoes. If he wants to get onto the tennis team, she can show him the ropes.

However, a secondborn child faces many challenges. His older sibling can do cartwheels in the grass and he cannot. He concludes there’s something wrong with him. How come she can write her name and read books? He doesn’t know how. Will he ever catch up?

The oldest child is much more sophisticated in her language skills and tends to monopolize her parents’ attention at dinner. The younger one often finds he has a hard time getting a word in edgewise or even understanding what they’re talking about. To add to the problem, the older child is always doing something new, like choosing a high school or going to her first dance, and conversations often revolve around these ventures.

A younger child may win an award in tennis, but his parents may disappoint him in the amount of enthusiasm they show. After all, his older sister has won many trophies before. He wants more of a celebration.

Often the oldest child is labeled the academic genius of the family. It may sound funny, but this actually can happen because the oldest got to school first. Everyone in the family is so thrilled by her prowess in reading and writing that they constantly ooh and ah. The younger child may shy away from competing in school because he is convinced he can never equal his older sibling. Or, the younger child can become fiercely competitive and try hard to outdo her. Sometimes secondborns turn to the arts or sports to establish a unique identity.

The older child was the first to come on the scene, and she tries to hang on to her number one position at all costs. Sometimes she will criticize the younger child by saying, “Your homework is so easy compared to mine,” so the younger child will feel less valuable. The older one will also dominate her younger sibling and insist upon being first, choosing the game they play and determining the rules. When she has a friend over she may completely ignore her younger brother, too.

So what can you do to help your second child with all these challenges?

Explain to your secondborn his birth order challenge: “It’s hard to be the second child because your older sister can do so much more. She gets to stay up later than you because when you’re younger, your body needs more sleep. When you have a race, she wins because her legs are longer and she’s stronger. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Explain to your child that his older sister can read and write and do math because she has been in school longer, and she has learned step by step how to do it. He will gain these skills over time.

Foster your child’s interests. He might like to play hockey even though his older sister plays soccer. And if he wants to play soccer, encourage him to try. If he loves to draw, register him in art classes and buy him the materials he needs to express himself.

Monitor your children’s interactions. If the older one is criticizing him or dominating him, encourage your secondborn to assert himself. He can say, “It’s my turn to pick the program we watch on TV,” or “When you criticize the way I write my name, it makes me feel bad.”

Keep a running list of the dates each child goes first in different activities, such as sitting next to Mommy at the dinner table. This will minimize sibling battles and give the children the assurance that they will each get their chance.

Make sure to celebrate your second child’s achievements. He needs to know that his accomplishments are just as important to you as his older sibling’s.

When you’re at the dinner table, make sure to include your younger child in the conversation. You can ask him for his opinions about your next family vacation or talk about his day. If you’re aware that you are talking too much about the older one’s latest challenges, reschedule the discussion for another time.

Make sure your older child does not make the younger one feel second best. Talk to your firstborn about her birth order challenge: “You used to have all the love and attention, and now you have to share us with your brother. When you criticize him, I think you’re trying to show you are still number one, and it hurts him. We don’t hurt anyone in our family.” Reassure your child that you have enough love for both of them.