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I Let My Oldest Child Down

Photograph by Getty Images

I’m a classic second-born — I’m used to attention being siphoned away by my older sibling and have always had the nagging sense that my achievements were less exciting because there was always someone who did everything before I did. To cope, I’ve become a perfectionistic peacemaker who is very sensitive to criticism. It’s not a tragic state of being, but it’s been an explicit mission of mine to keep my son, our second-born child, from feeling lost or inadequate next to his big sister who is adroit at grabbing the spotlight.

It’s possible I’ve erred too far on the side of leveling the unfair field of birth order.

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Take this school year. It was my son’s first foray into “real” school. I spent hours preparing him for the big transition by talking to him about his new routine and discussing all the big changes coming his way. We bought books and watched videos about starting school. I wanted him to know that his first day of school was as important of a milestone as his sister’s was. We made signs, we took pictures, we escorted him to the building. Just like we did for his sister the year before.

As for my daughter, I mistakenly assumed that she was all set. After all, she’d been to school before; she knew most of her classmates and all of teachers. I didn’t think she needed me like my son did.

During the first week of school, I expected my son to act out. I was on high alert for regressive (wetting the bed or acting like a baby) and aggressive (tantrums, biting, hitting) behavior. But it wasn’t him who was melting down. It was my daughter.

Huh, strange, I thought. I chalked it up to the over-stimulation of the school year after the languid summer schedule. I kept my focus on my son, who seemed to be adjusting well to his new role as a preschooler.

I’d projected my own historical feelings of inadequacy on my son and ignored my daughter in the process.

My daughter melted down in each of the next three days. I could no longer deny that she was struggling mightily. In a moment of calm, I asked her what was going on.

“I’m not ready to be a kindergartener,” she said. She mentioned her anxiety about learning to read and staying for a longer day at school.

I’d done so little — practically nothing — to prepare her for her new year. I was so busy trying to keep my son from developing an inferiority complex (like mine) that I’d missed my older child’s need for more emotional support. And worse: I’d projected my own historical feelings of inadequacy on my son and ignored my daughter in the process.

It’s not that my son didn’t need as much support as I gave him. Perhaps his transition went as well as it did was because of my efforts to ease him into it. My daughter needed something too, but I couldn’t see it until she went nuclear on me three days in a row. The truth is that I have a blind spot born of my own history. I’m overly sympathetic to my child who shares my birth order, so I overcompensate, hoping to give him the attention and support I wished I’d gotten.

But this overcompensation is a tricky proposition. First, my son isn’t having my childhood; he’s having his own. So how can I ever know exactly what I’m compensating for and by how much? And second, this overcompensating can’t come at the expense of my daughter, who deserves to have her needs met, even though she occupies a birth position I cannot directly relate to.

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This time, I fell short and my daughter got short shrift, which feels just as bad as if I had deprived my son of all the bells and whistles of starting school that he deserved. Next time, I’ll try to give them both what they actually need, and not try to correct my own history through them.

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