First child, third parent?

I was once told about a survey which looked at senior executives to determine what factors are most likely to create business leaders. Surprisingly, the one thing which most characterised them was not academics or parental demographics, nor was it gender or race. Instead the research found a marked tendency to have been the first child in the family. When I look at the way Isaac behaves and the way we treat him, I can see what they mean.

Isaac: definitely a thinker

Isaac: definitely a thinker

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all oldest children will automatically become leaders. Nor am I saying that Isaac is destined to become the next Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg. It’s more that the combination of his position in the family and our parental expectations are more likely to instill in him a set of conditioned behaviours which may better prepare him for some kind of leadership role in later life.

After all, what does a leader do? They are accustomed to stepping up and taking responsibility for things, which is essentially the job description of an older sibling.

There’s no question that we have higher expectations of Isaac than we do of Toby, and probably always will do. It’s not that we think he’s smarter or more likely to become the next David Beckham than his brother, but as the oldest of three children he shoulders the responsibility – and sometimes it’s a burden – of being expected to be ‘the grown-up one’. In practical terms it means that when we’re out and about as a family we expect him to be well-behaved, to be given a greater degree of independence and trust that he won’t do anything silly, and when required to help us out with his siblings. To be a role model and a leader, in other words.

At weekends I often take the boys out for the morning to help me with important tasks like going to the tip and filling up Costa Coffee’s coffers – I really should buy shares – to give Heather a little breathing space. Isaac’s job at such times – one that he relishes – is to help look after Toby, keeping an eye on him, holding his hand as we walk across the car park and generally being the responsible big brother. I think he just likes being bossy and showing off his knowledge as he points out all the different fish on the fish counter in Tesco to Toby, but he plays the role well. He’s much the same in taking Kara under his wing too. He’s a great big brother to have.

Now just do as I say, Toby

Now just do as I say, Toby

All this is a good thing for him in terms of accelerating his maturity and creating a natural sense of responsibility which I’m sure will stand him in good stead in later life, but I do sometimes wonder if we are asking too much of our first child to effectively act as a pseudo third parent on occasion. He is by nature a fairly serious and conscientious individual – much like both his parents – and there are certainly times when we should be encouraging him to just be a boy more. (It says everything about him that his favourite new thing at Christmas was not one of the age-appropriate games we bought specifically for him, but the new version of Trivial Pursuit Heather got for me.)

There is the occasional warning sign to remind us not to push him too hard. Every now and then you can see him struggling under the burden of having to act so grown-up so much of the time. There has been the odd plaintive wail of “I just want to go back to being a baby!” Then ten minutes later he’s back bossing his brother, his sister and, yes, his parents around. But it’s certainly a caution to be heeded.

I want my boy to grow up with a sense of fun. And I want him to grow up ready and willing to be a fully contributing member of society. And I also want him to be an extra pair of hands when I can’t cope on my own. I need him to be all these things, just in the right balance. It’s tough being a father, but it’s also tough being the oldest child sometimes.

And then the fun began...
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20 thoughts on “First child, third parent?

  1. As the eldest of three, I know exactly what you mean. But, it hasn’t done me any harm, nor will it Isaac.

    That’s a lovely picture of the two boys together in Tesco. I particularly like that they’re standing in front of the “Tesco finest” sign. Presumably they’d be a “two for the price of one” special offer? Where’s my trolley……………..

    • It’s interesting to watch him. Just occasionally he’s overwhelmed by the ‘responsibility’ but for the most part he absolutely thrives on it, and that confidence is really obvious when he then interacts with other kids or even with adults.

  2. I am the eldest of 4 and I truly hated being the third parent. The memory of being 11 years old and pushing my youngest brother in his buggy while wearing my school uniform still makes me shudder. I wasn’t occasionally overwhelmed by the responsibility, I was regularly crushed by it and being bullied all through school didn’t help. I could take part in no extra curricular activities as I had childcare responsibilities. What I found really strange was other people not being able to understand that the idea having children of my own was utterly horrifying to me. I have no medals, trophies or certificates from childhood pursuits because my life was all about childcare. I’ve done my bit and now it’s my time. Even as an adult I am overly responsible and believe that I have to take care of everything although I’m working on that. My parents are good people but even now they do not understand how lonely, inadequate and stressed out I felt. No child should feel stressed by their responsiblities.

    • I’m really sorry to hear the story of your childhood – thanks for sharing. I think it’s very easy for everyone to forget that, even as the oldest sibling, childhood is a precious time that shouldn’t be overly burdened with grown-up responsibilities. With Isaac we’re learning that it’s OK for him to voluntarily play the ‘big brother’ role – it’s something that, for the most part, he actively enjoys. What we definitely need to be wary of is ensuring that whatever responsibility he does willingly take on doesn’t get in the way of him just being him, and that he never feels that things are being forced upon him.

    • I can understand how you feel – I was in a similar position after my parents divorced and I had to look after my sister while my mum rediscovered her teenage years *sarcasm intended*… it didn’t sour me to having my own, but it could have.

      I now have three beautiful children (son 13, daughter 9 and daughter 6 months) and I constantly worry that I am putting too much responsibility onto my son, especially as his aspergers causes him to act a lot older than he actually is.
      I do try to make sure he has his own time as well – he goes to Scouts / Explorers and gets trips out without his sisters. It’s about balance; something I didn’t have when I was growing up, but something I strive for now.

  3. I can see exactly what you are saying, I have four children and I have to say the eldest two do seem to have more responsibility than the younger two but majority of the time it is their choice for it to be that way, they like helping etc like you say you want them to still have fun though #archiveday

    • That’s the tricky balance, isn’t it? My oldest likes being responsible and showing off how mature he is (and we are both so grateful for his kindness and helpfulness), and yet at the same time we want him to enjoy his childhood while he can because it only lasts so long. With four it must be doubly tricky!

  4. It stands to reason when you think about it doesn’t it? My eldest is very responsible. Perhaps it’s in their genes, although I’m sure we have a big part to play in the personality that they develop. Having two younger siblings causes this to happen naturally I imagine.

    • It does seem logical when it’s pointed out, doesn’t it? Of course, that’s not to say that subsequent children can’t be great leaders too, but you can see how being the first-born creates circumstances in which the opportunity to take responsibility comes much more easily.

  5. This is something I often ponder too. My oldest is a mere 5, but since my third child was born I have depended on him so much. I actually realised what I was doing a few months ago and reigned it right back in, and started actively taking him out on his own to do fun stuff as I just felt really guilty! I think it’s just inevitable that we use number 1 to help look after subsequent siblings but as long as we’re aware of it, I don’t think it will harm them x

    • We do rely on Isaac a lot to be the sensible one. I often give him certain tasks to do when he goes out – although I’m conscious of not trying to give him too much, it’s something he naturally accepts and actively enjoys.

  6. I do expect more of my oldest, but as much because he is older and should know better! I often say that the dynamic of my children sounds very similar to yours, and this is another case in point. My 8yo has always been a considered and thoughtful boy, even before he had siblings, so he does naturally tend towards looking after them. Having said that, his younger brother is also quite sensible, so the pair of them get on together quite well and do enjoy looking after their sister. My favourite moments are when the boys take the wee girl out in to the garden to play and the three of them have so much fun together! I think it’s all about balance, there is no harm in teaching them to be responsible, that is a good skill for them to develop, but they are children and need time to be kids too xx #thetruthabout

    • As you say, Sara, as with so many things it’s all about balance. Our middle child, Toby, tends to go with the flow when all three of the kids are together – to the extent where if one of them is going to aimlessly wander off unannounced, it will always be him – but it’s noticeable that in situations where it’s just him and Kara, he takes a much more active role in looking after his sister. We’re lucky that they (for the most part) get on so well and look out for each other, although there’s no mistaking that Kara is the boss!

  7. I can totally see how being the first born leads to being a leader. I am the oldest of 3 (if you want to add in the step-siblings, I have 2 more under me!) and I have always felt that there was a bit more pressure on me. I also remember being bossy towards the younger kids and to this day still feel a tad “parental” towards them. I’m protective and feel like I should tell them what to do…for their own good, of course ;-)

    I see it already in my daughter, who is currently an only child. She’s already bossy with everyone, I know it will increase when she has siblings!

    Thank you for sharing! #thetruthabout

    • Thanks Brandyn. I’m one of two and I remember there was always an expectation to be the responsible, sensible one (which was fine by me). Isaac also seems to accept responsibility naturally, which makes it doubly important for us to take care not to overload him. There’s plenty of time for him to grow up, and I want him to enjoy his childhood while it lasts.

  8. I’m a youngest so I guess I was born to be led! Interesting that Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson are both oldest siblings. I guess it’s true that we do expect a little bit more of them a little bit earlier – I definitely expect JJ to be the sensible one and round EJ up when we’re out and I’m solo parenting. It seems a bit weird in a way because JJ seems like the more sensitive one and the one who needs more mothering. I think EJ will probably just coast along! Thanks for linking to #thetruthabout again Tim X

    • Isaac is similar – he’s the most responsible but also the one who is the most sensitive and in need of social contact. Sometimes it astonishes me how much empathy and emotional understanding he has – he picks up on the mood in a room very quickly and is always there with a quick hug when needed, whether it’s one of his siblings or one of his parents!

  9. We had 3 kids in less than five years. Looking back, my wife has said that she (and I) expected too much of our oldest – he wasn’t five when his second sibling was born. It may have bred a little resentment of his younger brother. But it may also have helped him become more independent.

    • It’s a fine balance, isn’t it? Our three are almost equally spaced over a 53-month period. We’ve been lucky that there has been little sibling rivalry between any of them. Toby has always grown up having to share parental attention, as the third Kara knows she has to be vocal in demanding it, and even with Isaac he adapted to being one of two (and then three) very easily, and he was young enough that now he no longer remembers what it was like to be an only child, even though that has shaped some of his personality.

      Like your children, I think ours are (hopefully) growing up to know that they need to learn to rely on themselves to an extent and take responsibility when they need to. (Especially when Daddy’s occupied watching a very important football match …)

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