The old adage “Children grow up too quickly” exists because it’s true. They do. But what’s often overlooked is that parents themselves are learning, changing, and growing right alongside their kids.
This reality tends to shape the relationship that develops between parents and each individual child, as well as the expectations that are set along the way that ultimately shape personalities. How a new parent treats her first child is often drastically different than how she interacts with their second because she’s gained experience. And when it comes to the lastborn “baby of the family,” those expectations not only relax substantially, but also the sentimental reality of going through various stages and milestones for the very last time sets in for parents.
And, true to form, lastborn children catch on quickly and are happy to take advantage of their unique position.
“They’re great at making use of their youngness. They turn on the charm with a flutter of the eyes or tilt of the head. They know how to play to the audience,” says Jack Agati, counselor, author, and creator of the audio series, Why Do Kids Do The Things They Do?
He points out that parenting with gusto gets tiring after a while, especially when attending to jobs and household duties along with the needs of several children at once.
“We worry about everything with our firstborn. We bring them to the doctor more times than subsequent children combined,” he notes. “Even the seemingly trivial things, like making sure they don’t use their sleeve to wipe their faces or noses. By the time the youngest comes along, though, they’re free to use their sleeve and ours, too.”
That’s not to say that parents care for youngest children any less, but that priorities have shifted. This puts lastborns in a unique position and shapes them into highly social citizens. If you’re the youngest of the family, Agati says, the need to fit in and belong is much different than that of other siblings. Lastborns tend to flow between the adult world and kids of all ages, adapting as needed. They’ll meet expectations if they have to, but for the most part, they make decisions based on what they want to do — not just to please adults.
“One of the first things you develop as a youngest child is great observation skills,” he says. “You master what’s going on before you and learn from that: Brother got in trouble for that? Here’s my work-around. Sister achieved that by doing this? Duly noted. It’s incredible how aware they are and how quickly they size up a situation — the big picture and how it impacts others — and make decisions accordingly.”
This is where the ability of a lastborn to control or manipulate a situation can rear its head. “The youngest have a great deal of power and control, and they’re great actors,” Agati notes. He suggests not buying into whining and tears or falling into the drama. Youngest children may be using those tactics to get out of tasks you’ve asked them to do.
If you announce it’s time to head out to the yard for fall clean-up, for example, an oldest child may be slow to start and mumble and grumble about it. A youngest child, however, is likely to make an enthusiastic, energetic showing of it for a minute or two, only to give up because it’s “too hard,” or they’re tired. The oldest is often ultimately held responsible for picking up wherever the baby left off and finishing the job. Don’t be afraid to call them out on it.
“Be aware of your choices — whether consciously or not — to make things easier for your youngest, and perhaps yourself,” Agati advises. Parents, without realizing it, may put more veggies on their oldest child’s plate simply because they know he is more likely to eat them without a battle.
“If your oldest child started clearing the table when she was 5, move that chore onto your youngest when she’s 5, and assign your oldest a new, more age-appropriate task. If you don’t ask and expect your youngest to follow through on chores, she will assume you don’t need her or that someone else will do it — a mentality that could very well stay with her as she grows into adulthood.”
Agati also highlights the importance of acknowledging positive traits of a youngest child: “They may not be overachievers like their older sibling, or organized, but they are great organizers and “people” people, which will be a solid foundation for success in their careers. They take the edge off things and keep things in perspective because they see the big picture.”
Meri Wallace, clinical social worker and author of Birth Order Blues, agrees with the need to tune in to the specific issues a youngest child faces as a result of their birth order. When a youngest child sees older siblings cruising around without training wheels, they can internalize that as a failure or shortcoming on their part. Parents assume kids will understand, but they often don’t register that their siblings’ strength and ability has come with age.
“Parents need to explain to younger children, ‘At your age, your brother couldn’t ride, either. Then his legs grew longer, and now he can,’” she says. She adds that being the youngest in the family is a great place to be: “There are a lot of people to learn from and to receive love from.”
“We need youngest children in our lives,” Agati says. “They have a different view of the world. They take it easy and they understand what it means to ‘live life.’”
Next month, Part 4: The Only Child