Your second child is never as spoilt, fussed over and worried about as your first. But perhaps, says John Crace, a little healthy sibling rivalry is no bad thing
A FEW WEEKS ago our son, Robbie, celebrated his second birthday. If you can count lunch with a couple of our friends and their two year- old daughter, whom Robbie scarcely knew, as a celebration, that is. To be blunt, as a party, his birthday was a complete non-event, and had he been old enough to realise how badly he was being treated, no doubt he would have been extremely pissed off.

Especially if he had watched the video of his five-year-old sister's second birthday party. Now that was what I call a party. Planned with military precision weeks in advance, the party filled the house with hordes of toddlers dressed up like Barbara Cartland, all of whom had come to pay homage to the little princess. Anna was showered with presents, most of which were instantly discarded, she had a cake specially baked in the shape of a duck - she had a bit of a thing about ducks, don't ask me why - and the only thing that spoiled her day was not winning Pass the Parcel. She hadn't yet grasped the fact that the hostess never wins at society events.

Now it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to work out which party was the most enjoyable, but that doesn't wholly explain why Robbie only got two of our friends and a token dwarf. You see, even if we'd wanted to invite a bunch of toddlers we couldn't have done it, because Robbie doesn't actually have any friends. The best he can hope for is to be ignored by his sister and her pals. Anna, mind you, has never been short of friends. Even as a baby, she had friends - well, that's what we liked to call them, anyway. You see, with Anna we made an effort. Like all good middle-class parents-to-be we joined the National Childbirth Trust, did the classes, relaxed to Richard Clayderman and managed to forget how much more everyone else in the group was earning for long enough to spend the odd evening with them. So when the babies eventually appeared, they all had an active social life. But with Robbie we never really bothered. We couldn't face re-joining the NCT - our erstwhile friends having long since bitten the dust - and in as much as we thought about it at all, I suppose we reckoned that some of the parents of Anna's friends would have another child at a similar time to us. But they didn't, and my wife and I are left with the uncomfortable feeling that we may have screwed up somewhere.

Yet, looking at Robbie, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that he hasn't exactly suffered in comparison to his elder sister; if anything he's a far more laid-back individual. Jane Thorne has had a similar experience with her second child, Ellie. "In many ways, Ellie certainly seems to have been short- changed," she says. "The only new clothes she gets are presents from godparents: the rest of the time she is dressed in her older sister Katy's cast-offs. She has far fewer cuddly toys than Katy and her social life mainly involves hanging around with Katy. But she is a much more straightforward child. She is more predictable in her mood swings: indeed her overall behaviour is much more what I would have expected of a child than Katy's at the same age."

So is a bit of neglect good for a child? Well, yes, actually, according to childcare expert Penelope Leach. "Being bullied and generally knocked into shape by an older sibling is far more likely to produce a better adjusted child than endless cosseting and trying to force friends on him," she says. "People generally make far too much fuss about things like birthday parties. As a rough guideline I would suggest inviting one friend for every year." Phew. So we were only one out with Robbie's gig after all.

In fact, it's beginning to look as though, if we've screwed up anywhere, it's with Anna. With a first child, everything is new. No matter how much you try to bone up on rearing children in advance, nothing can truly prepare you for the shock of being responsible for someone 24 hours a day. And while this all has a certain excitement, it is also - in my case, at least - heavily laced with large doses of neurosis. A home that had previously looked like the perfect sanctuary suddenly turns into a potential death- trap, with electricity, stairs, knives and cot mattresses filled with God knows what. So I wasted a lot of effort on just trying to keep Anna alive, and if I'd had my way I'd have wasted a lot more - on oxygen tents, defibrillators and security guards.

But things change with a second child, and you get the message about this very early on. The arrival of number one is greeted with rapture by grandparents and friends. It is the cleverest, most interesting thing in the world and worthy of cartloads of flowers from Interflora. Number two is just plain dull, and you're lucky if someone bothers to turn up with a handful of half-dead flowers that they've picked up at the garage just round the corner. And with the widespread disinterest of the outside world comes an overwhelming... tiredness. Even if you wanted to be as neurotic with your second little darling, you just haven't got the energy. So when he heads off to some potential danger zone, rather than leaping to his aid, you just think, "Let the little bastard find out the hard way".

All of which begs another question. If laissez-faire parenting tends to produce better results, why do I still feel so guilty about the way we're bringing up Robbie? Penelope Leach is all too familiar with this syndrome. "Parents like to feel guilty about something," she says. "It's as if they associate guilt with the act of parenting, so they often look around for anything to attach that guilt to. And often it's something they have no need to feel guilty about."

John Renner is one parent who is most definitely on-message here. "Guilty?" he chokes. "You've got to be joking. I'm just looking forward to the day when my son Tom starts feeling guilty for the way he's mucked up my life." Now that's my kind of role model.