Thesis statement: Being the firstborn child is hard, but parents can make it easier.
- It’s hard being the oldest.
- The oldest child has a special significance in the family.
- The oldest child has the hardest job in the family.
- Why is it hard being the oldest?
- Birth order must be understood.
- Parenting styles for each child differ.
- Relationships within the family help determine personality.
- The firstborn child is an experiment.
- Parents have no experience.
- Parents can push their child too hard.
- The firstborn child has only adult role models.
- Firstborns want to be just like their parents.
- Firstborns want to do things the “right” way.
- Firstborns struggle with perfectionism.
- The firstborn child is either assertive or compliant.
- Assertive firstborns want to be the leader.
- Compliant firstborns want to be the follower.
- The firstborn child is dethroned by the second.
- The child has to share the spotlight.
- The child fears he wasn’t good enough.
- The child becomes angry and jealous.
- The firstborn child has to meet high expectations.
- Parents expect too much of the firstborn.
- Parents over-discipline the firstborn.
- Birth order must be understood.
- How can parents make it easier?
- Firstborns need to be assured of the parents’ love.
- Firstborns need to be allowed to say what they’re feeling.
- Firstborns need more lenience.
It’s not easy being the oldest kid in the family. As Ronald W. Richardson and Lois A. Richardson put it, “From ancient times, the oldest child has had a special significance in the family – and in the world. This special significance has meant everything from inheriting the kingdom to being offered as a sacrifice in religious rites, which is a good metaphor for the mixed blessings of the oldest” (44). Kevin Leman writes, “The toughest job in the family goes, hands down, to the firstborn” (Growing up, 4).
What is it that causes the firstborn child in the family to have such a hard time? A basic understanding of birth order psychology is necessary to answer this question. Richardson and Richardson say, “A child who is born into a household with only two adults in it has a different experience of early childhood than the child born into a household of two adults and three children” (4). They go on to explain that parenting styles are different for each child in the family. Parents are inexperienced with the first child and grow more relaxed with each child who follows. They often pay more attention to the first child than younger ones (5).
The firstborn child starts as the only child and stays in that position for several months or years. Since the parents have no experience in being parents, they pay extra attention to every new thing the child does. Robert Needlman writes, “First-time parents sweat the details. They document every milestone” (3). First children are worried over and showered with attention. Every first is praised. This can last throughout the child’s life (Richardson and Richardson, 45). However, there is a downside to all this attention. Since the parents have no experience, they often push their child too hard. Leman says, “Oldest children serve as ‘guinea pigs’ for parents who have never done this kind of thing before. Brand new parents are typically a bundle of ambivalence, one side overprotective, anxious, tentative, and inconsistent; the other side strict, disciplined, demanding, always pushing, and encouraging better performance” (Birth Order, 87). Richardson and Richardson elaborate, “The parents . . . have high expectations and often punish the child for not living up to their demands” (46).
The first child is unique in that he has mostly adult role models. He wants to be just like his parents. This desire is enhanced because of the extra attention he receives. Parents tend to push too hard, so most firstborns walk, talk, and do everything else sooner than their younger siblings. Firstborns are very obedient to any authority, because they want to please their parents (Leman, Birth Order, 272-273). Firstborns have a reputation for being punctual, correct, and hardworking. In Growing Up Firstborn, Leman says, “If you want something done properly, get a firstborn to do it” (9). Because they learned mainly from adults, they have an unquenchable desire to do everything the “right” way, and perfectly.
All of these traits are positive unless taken too far. Firstborn children fear making mistakes, which they believe will disappoint those in authority. They have high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations of themselves and others. Oldest children don’t accept criticism well. They have trouble saying “no” and often take on more than they can handle because they don’t want to disappoint anyone. They don’t ask for help easily because they don’t believe anyone else is as capable as they are (Richardson and Richardson, 52-54). Leman writes, “Perfectionism is the major problem for almost all first borns . . . . At worst, it can be a curse and, at best, a heavy burden” (Birth Order, 94).
Leman writes that most firstborns fit into one of two categories: assertive or compliant. “Assertive first borns set high goals and have a strong need to be ‘king or queen pin.’ And along the way, they often develop badgerlike [sic] qualities – in other words, they can scratch, claw, and bite” (Birth Order, 82). Assertive firstborns often want to be the boss in every situation. The other side of the coin is the compliant firstborn, “model children who grew up to be pleasers of others” (Birth Order, 80). “Compliant first borns are well known for taking it and being walked on by a world that loves to take advantage of them. They are also known for nursing their resentments quietly, and then venting with one grand explosion” (Birth Order, 82).
The role of the firstborn takes on a new direction after the arrival of the second child. Leman writes, “One of the most challenging tasks of parenting is preparing the first born child for the intrusion of the second” (Birth Order, 273). The use of the word “intrusion” here is no exaggeration. Firstborns are usually surprised when the second child comes along. They feel jealousy, guilt, and anger (Needlman, 6). Meri Wallace explains that the firstborn child is no longer the center of attention when the new baby arrives. He may become rebellious to get attention. The child fears that he wasn’t good enough, so his parents had the new baby as a replacement. Even though the child feels left out, his changes in behavior cause the parents to feel they spend more time with him than with the baby (21-23). If the parents don’t make an effort to let the oldest know he’s still loved and important, he can develop serious self-esteem problems. Edith Neisser explains, “To a small child, affection is like a cake. Every time someone else gets a piece, he imagines that much less remains for him” (45).
Added to this is the fact that once the new baby is born, the parents expect the firstborn to “set a good example for younger siblings” (Richardson and Richardson, 49). Parents often expect more of their firstborn and forget that he is still a child. He feels wronged when the younger sibling gets away with things he wouldn’t dare try himself. Parents usually take the side of the younger child in any squabble, since they feel it’s an unfair fight, even if the younger child started it. Because of this, the firstborn becomes very angry and resentful of both sibling and parents (Wallace, 36-37). Leman writes, “The bottom line is that parents expect too much of first borns” (Birth Order, 91).
Firstborn children are often disciplined more than their siblings. It’s not uncommon for children to be playing rowdily when one of the parents notices the commotion and reprimands the oldest for encouraging his younger siblings to be wild. “One thing many firstborns can tell you is that, while they had to toe the mark, their younger brothers and sisters got off easy” (Leman, Birth Order, 90).
But raising the firstborn doesn’t have to be this way. Most of the characteristics of the oldest child can be assets if the parents lay the groundwork early. Leman writes that the parents should assure the oldest that there will be enough love to go around after the new baby is born. The firstborn will soon realize that the new baby is going to stay, and that’s the time when he should be allowed to help, if he’s old enough. Another important factor is reminding the child of all the things he can do that the baby can’t do yet (Birth Order, 273-274). Wallace also believes that parents need to tell the firstborn that he is loved no matter what (136). She also says that parents should encourage their firstborn to say what he’s feeling, and then listen when he does (24-26). Richardson and Richardson say much the same thing. The oldest needs to know he is loved apart from his accomplishments (59).
It’s all too common for parents to be stricter with their firstborn children than with the rest. Leman says parents need to be “loving and fair but also consistent and firm” (Birth Order, 276-277). They shouldn’t insist the child help out excessively around the house or with younger siblings (Wallace, 136).
If parents relax a bit with the first child and take Leman’s advice to “Flaunt your imperfections” (Birth Order, 285), the firstborn child can grow up to be a well-adjusted, responsible adult. No child will ever be perfect, and no child should ever be expected to be.
Leman, Kevin. Growing Up Firstborn: The Pressure and Privilege of Being Number One. New York: Dell, 1989.
Leman, Kevin. The New Birth Order Book. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1998.
Needlman, Robert. “Firstborns: The Family Pioneers.” April 18, 2001. .
Neisser, Edith G. The Eldest Child. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.
Richardson, Ronald W. & Lois A. Richardson. Birth Order and You. North Vancouver: Self-Counsel Press, 1990.
Wallace, Meri. Birth Order Blues. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.