It’s Hard Being the Youngest

It’s Hard Being the Youngest October 22, 2012

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As a wannabe psychologist and sociologist I am fascinated by the impact of birth order on systems: family and organizational. As I cooly and objectively step back and observe the myriad of sibling “laboratories” in my own life, none is more important and meaningful than that of my own brood of three daughters.

As the oldest of four siblings, complete with sub-birth orders, I know that the eldest child might get some special treatment solely because we happened to be birthed first. Honestly though, I suspect that there are pluses and minuses to being born at any stage or order: first, middle, youngest, only, etc. Each “has it the hardest” or “has it the easiest” depending on the day of the week and we parents are constantly caught in the middle, never getting it exactly right.


But . . . while there are always exceptions based on circumstance, personality, etc., I do think that, in many ways, the youngest has a particular challenge when following siblings through the early stages of life. Older siblings can suck all of the energy and air from a room, school or activity leaving youngests to search for slivers of unoccupied space from where they can claim their individuality and express their personhood.

With two very different, but very strong older sisters, our youngest is no different.

Today is one of those important sibling days, as our youngest (pictured during a recent school run-athon) will find out if she was elected to the student council. We have noticed that there are times when she will do things precisely because her older sisters have or have not done them in the past, so the very fact that she decided to run for office is pretty amazing. In fact, both of her older siblings were elected to office, prompting a playful and affectionate comparison to “The Kennedy’s” by a friend.

No pressure 😉

As I dropped her off today, we talked through what she may want to do if she does not get elected, “Be sure to offer congratulations to the winner.” or if she is elected, “Be sure to say thank you to the other candidates.” I let her know that it was going to be harder for some kids than others if they are not elected, but that, no matter what happens, mom and dad think she did a great job.

I admit, some of my council was precisely to help her navigate these kinds of social experiences with grace and gratitude, but it was also to pre-emptively remove expectations that are based at all on the actions of her older sisters. Comparisons between siblings happen easily enough on their own, so there is no need to reinforce one identity based on the identity of another.

As parents we must always be aware that we are raising three wonderfully unique human beings each formed by many factors, one of which is birth order. And as we tell them all the time, we love them each differently, we strive to parent each one according to their particular needs, struggles, joys and passions.

So win, lose or tie and regardless of what her older sisters have done in the past, today is Youngest’s day . . . hers, all hers.

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6 responses to “It’s Hard Being the Youngest”

  1. Being the youngest also means you are free to take risks and be a trailblazer. I never did anything my older sibs(all 9 of them) did, just because it had been done before. More power to your youngest, whom I can attest (since I am a parent volunteer at her school) is a standout individual. Siblings aside, I think we can expect great things from her.

  2. Okay, as almost-youngest child–being fourth of five meant that there was plenty of air being sucked out of any room we were all in–I have a little perspective on this. Youll have to talk to Mel to hear her views. And they’d be different, partly because she’s youngest, but partly because she is who she is.
    I found it rather nice to disappear among all the commotion of a family competing for the floor, the space at the table, the front seat of the car, or whatever. But I didn’t compete. That was my way to deal with all that “they’re better at things” energy. I also had my strengths that were just mine. I don’t know exactly how I knew that, because I don’t remember my parents really telling me that. We all grew up REALLY different people, in spite of the attempt (I think) by my parents to try to treat us all pretty much the same, in terms of encouragement or discipline. In the end, it’s impossible to treat every child the same, and I think we all knew that, in spite of whining (which we really didn’t do much because that was the BEST way to NOT get something in our house.
    A big advantage of being a youngest (or almost-) is that you see how your older siblings navigate the parental relationship, and then the world in general, and you figure out what NOT to do, and you also learn by osmosis the things that you need to know. How to brush your teeth, how to behave at the table, how not to annoy your dad/mom, how to work the system. Sometimes decisions are absolutely based on what your siblings have done, and how successful they were at it. I didn’t want to play the flute, because my sister did, so I played the trombone. I did want to play the piano because my sister did, but she was always better because she practiced. I went to Europe as an exchange student because my sister went (but she went to Japan, and I saw that I would visually fit in a LOT better in Europe…)
    Did my inherent personality contribute to how I responded to my siblings and their experiences? Probably. Did I develop my personality in response to watching my siblings’ response to the world? Probably.
    I have noticed, having an only child, that there are many things that she would have had very different had she had siblings. She has not had to share her toys, learn to work well as a team, converse considerately at the table (though of course she did learn that with us, but then we’re adults and she HAS to be considerate). She has not had the advantage of hip fashion advice, tech assistance and covert collusion on all kinds of illicit activities.
    Her reality is her reality, though. I know what she’s missing, but she has no idea.

  3. As the youngest of four, I think one of the challenges is that no matter how innately good you may be at something, everyone else in the family can still do it better by virtue of maturity and coordination. That will change as everyone becomes adults but you don’t know that as a child. While you welcome praise you also have eyes to see that everyone else does what you do better. You can come to doubt the sincerity of affirmation you are genuinely receiving. I think I was in my 30s before I was able to fully come to grips with this and realize I really am good at some things. I’ve talked with other youngest children who have similar stories.

  4. Now I will patiently wait with you to hear the results. Please update. Thanks for the shout out to the youngest sibling!