Being the eldest child is a blessing and a curse
Though they often have more in common with adults rather than their peers, they can feel that in order to be loved/accepted, they need to be responsible
Thursday 07 August 2014
I didn't ask to be the eldest child. I didn't ask for whatever advantages or disadvantages being the eldest child brings. Would I change being the eldest of five children? No chance.
Watching the video that went viral last week of a young girl crying as she realised that her little baby brother would not stay like that forever got me reminiscing. I had the best time watching my four siblings grow up, learning new things, sharing exciting experiences, guiding them as best I could - usually by advising them not to repeat my mistakes - and being there when they needed their 'big brother'.
I was the shock news that greeted my parents on a wet and windy morning in November 1988. Five months later I arrived; the guinea pig that would lead the way for the next generation of our perfectly dysfunctional little family.
I was four and a half when my sister was born. It was amazing. I finally had a role. I wasn't just the toddler who had every day to himself; there was another little person to fuss over. Our parents still frequently recall stories of how I became an overprotective older brother, one who would insist on holding onto my little sister tightly no matter where we went.
The fun wasn't over yet as we welcomed another sister and two brothers. By the age of 11 I was probably best described as being an adult trapped in a child's body. I've always been a bossy, headstrong character, so took to the role of being the eldest quite easily. A short-lived novelty.
I was 11 and a half when my Dad had several major heart attacks and underwent a triple bypass. Looking back, I can't believe I was so aware of what was going on at such a young age. At the time my age did not feel like a factor. I was the eldest; I'd seen enough films and read enough books to know that I was the one who had to step up and be there for my Mum and siblings. What if Dad didn't make it through the surgery he faced? I remember preparing myself for the worst early on.
Thankfully that was not the case. Life undoubtedly changed a lot, with Dad having to rediscover himself and his role within the family unit. I secretly felt like I was needed to become a third adult for that extra support, but looking back, I think Mum feels guilty that I grew up so fast, but I wouldn't change that.
Intrigued by my own personality, I attempted to discover myself online through the reading of numerous 'eldest child syndrome' papers. While most did paint a picture that felt very familiar, I found myself looking for further explanations to figure out if such 'syndromes' did play a role.
Earlier this year, the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex published groundbreaking research which showed that firstborn girls are 13 per cent more ambitious than firstborn sons. It suggested that an eldest female daughter was statistically more likely to end up with the highest qualification of the family. The paper goes on to note that it has been observed that children in larger families have significantly lower levels of aspirations than those from smaller.
I have often wondered if the eldest of two or three children would experience 'eldest child syndrome' to the same effect as someone with more younger siblings. However, the paper's lead researcher Feifei Bu said that her data found "no evidence" to suggest that the birth order effect differs between small and larger sibling groups.
She further explained how the research showed that a larger gap between each child did show an effect on educational attainment.
When publishing the study, she noted: "It is interesting that we observe a distinct firstborn advantage in education, even though parents in modern society are more likely to be egalitarian in the way they treat their children."
As the years have gone on, I believe the disadvantages of being the eldest have presented themselves more. I'm admittedly still quite needy. I had had over four years of attention before my sister was born, a substantial block of time to enjoy the only-child experience. There's no doubt about it, I was the centre of attention and I always liked that alone time with my parents.
Child psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew said that she sees a "number of effects that being the eldest sibling can have" from the adults and young people she sees.
My own teenage years - from bullying to an overdose, and being diagnosed with depression - were far from normal, so I had a lot of time at home where I was either spending time with siblings or mixing only with adults outside of the family unit. I never mixed well with people my own age, perhaps a negative side effect of how I had become older than my years so early on.
Dr Andrew confirmed that as the eldest, being given responsibility constantly can see the child "having more in common with adults rather than their peers. They can also internalise that in order to be loved/accepted that they need to work hard and be responsible. These patterns can lead to depression in adolescence/adulthood, particularly if in spite of working hard, success does not seem to be achieved".
Now aged 25 the role can still have its complications. With the age gap that exists comes the difficultly of also having a sometimes confusing adult/child relationship. The second I have to switch onto adult mode is clearly frustrating for them, and those boys just love to make a "you're not Dad!" fuss. Kids of 11 and 15 want their big brother, not another pair of adult eyes watching their every move.
Dr Andrew explained: "Other siblings may find it hard to accept changes in eldest siblings often because if an eldest child changes their behaviour, it will often have a knock on effect on the other children and the parents and the way a family functions.
"Often, eldest siblings I've met have felt liberated when they have taken a stance against being responsible or chosen to accept themselves as they are, rather than viewing themselves as only loveable when they achieve certain things," he said.
Christmas 2014 was a defining Love family moment. After a quarter of a century I finally said goodbye to that Christmas morning Santa excitement, as the baby of the family was let in on that secret. It was the end of an era.
I'm sure we all have moments where we resent our positions within our respective families. I've argued the points with fellow eldest children, middle children and youngest children many times. I can only speak from personal experience, and while birth order has certainly played a role in shaping the people my siblings and I are, we are far from tied to descriptions of what is expected of us.
I still think it's the best feeling in the world to feel needed and important to your siblings. I hope that never changes, because they'll always be my baby sisters and brothers who will need protecting and guidance. (Especially when they don't want it).
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