Very often I think my children’s personalities have come pre-installed and I bow down in utter defeat to nature! But I wish it were that simple (thinks of all the dashed careers of eminent child psychologists, sociologists and other detanglers of the why-of-child-behaviour if that were true!)
Recently, like countless parents before me and countless after, I sat down with a drink, watching both my children play with a friend they’ve both known for years (My older daughter’s 7 and younger one is 5.5) and wondered if things might’ve been different if they had a different birth order. My guess is that hypothesis is founded in ‘nurture’…for some reason, amidst the kerfuffle of nature vs nurture, I’ve always tended to credit nurture with more, probably as a result of my control freakishness. To assume that for the rest of our life, we are just programmed to work ‘plug and play’ seems somewhat wrong! Let me tell you what my life has been enriched by.. my first child is a quiet, sensitive, intelligent but controlling, generally amiable sort; my second is a quick, witty, opinionated but self-assured somewhat gender-confused loudmouth. The first is highly capable of chosing flamboyant purple trousers, fuschia jumpers and silver sneakers, the second prefers neutral tops and jeans, and froths at the mouth at the sight of pink! They get on like a house on fire when they do and all hell breaks loose when they don’t. Typical.
I often feel that if DD2 was my first child, she might’ve very likely been the ‘only’ But, would she be what she is if she was part of a different birth order? Psychologists believe that firstborns are diligent and want to be the best at everything they do. They try exceedingly to to win the hearts of their parents, go the extra mile at school, believe in order, are attentive, stringent with rules, and overly neurotic about the minutiae! Second children (or lastborns in my case) tend to be fun-loving, uncomplicated, manipulative, outgoing, attention-seeking as having to contionously share space and thought with another and self-centered. (I put that down to survival instincts as mommy didn’t dial 111 every time she got a cold! She might’ve also told her to get on with it and grab a tissue! )
Bingo! We’ve got this spot on – why hasn’t our family been interviewed yet?!!
Birth order related behaviour is learned, not inherited. As a result of this, my children have two different sets of parents -(it’s back to being about me again!) I’m a different mother with both my children, heck, I’m a whole different person with each of them The more I look around, I realise that no two children in any family ever take the same role; if you have one child that’s nurturing, then that role is taken and and the other will pick another role in the family, perhaps that of the achiever, the entertainer, the family clown! Undeniably, it’s the potent mixture of peers, siblings, genes, and circumstance that moulds a child’s temperament, thought I still firmly believe that parents (biological or not) are the major influencing factors in the outcome. Of course, that sets the stage for me footing any therapy bills that might arise as the result of such an ‘influence’! The bonding with the primary caretaker is what influences self-confidence, trust, the ability to interact with another person, and the child carries so much of the parents in them- that is a lasting impression! I look at both my girls and from time to time, see myself in them…believe you me, the last thing I wanted for either of them is my temperament, and as sure as anything, they’ve both got it – in some infernal auction, they’ve bid and won my moodiness, my neurosis, my obsessive compulsiveness for things done a particular way! And with gentle benevolence, life’s sprinkled them with my humour, my ability to rise up (somewhat) to a bad circumstance and get on with it. (we’ll leave the achievement and good social skills to daddy!) And in as much as they are us – apples fallen right under the tree; they are them…rolled far enough to still have shelter from our shade!
If I use personality type as a guage, my children (as countless siblings are), are strangers who share about 30% of the same interests and perspectives. Both my children have different needs that call upon me to be a different mum to both in order to satisfy it. I often tell my older one off, even if her behaviour doesn’t merit it just to even the score a bit because the second one is constantly being reigned in Are we fixed in this inflexible circle of personality? Mercifully not, all of us can make a conscious choice to be who we would like to be, success varies though I still battle with all the traits of a typical second child…fighting for my moment in the sun (truly sad when you’re on the other side of 35! ) My sister was the perfect first, and if having children’s taught me something-it’s letting it go, I understand why I love my sister to bits, by the way..have always done, though we’re as different as yams and peas!
One of my favourite writers, Andrew Solomon who wrote Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (a fantastic book, though a bit grim and makes for somewhat cast-iron-stomach reading in parts) writes extensively about personality development and says that “Parenting is no sport for perfectionists” – Amen, brother! He talks about the two types of identity we all have; vertical- passed down from our parents (race, religion, ethnicity, culture) and horizontal – what we are by ourselves, the same identity that makes parents sometimes gasp and take a step back and think “where have you come from?”! The fit between the two and the acceptance that you get for your horizontal identity is one of the largest markers of happiness throughout your life. To be accepted for you- your unique you’ness!
As annoying or accomplished, as amiable or as contentious, our children thrive in an environment that is positive, safe, healthy and stimulating. The more attention I pay to my child’s personality and temperament, the better equipped I am to tailor our home to bring them toward their fullest potential. I tend to work at lightening the load my older carries as the ‘older sister’ and root my fences in deeper for the second who freewheels in a more lenient parental space! After all, I had given up on the bath thermometer and temperature-guaging spoons by the time she’d arrived!
However close my apples fall to me, or if they should roll onto a whole different courtyard- they’re mine and I hope to recalibrate my mind and love them with the same tenacity as I’ve always done. For what else is the lofty return on parenting if not angst and helplessness heaped with a generous dollop of fidelity, dedication and an unsurmountable triumph of love?! x
*Images used in this post have been taken by Daniel Simm on an early morning just as Rahel and Rayna got out of bed! I am generally known to comb their hair and dress them in clothes other than their pjs! ;P
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