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.

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8 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!

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