Eldest Child Syndrome - Are You One? Or Do You Know Of One?

Posted at 18:21pm on 9th October 2008

Have you ever been in a situation where you begin to wonder whether other people’s expectations of you exceed your ability or willingness to deliver? Of course you have! Silly question – unless you’re one of those super-humans who knows how to say ‘No!’ But that’s another issue, for another day.

BIRTH ORDER AND SELF

Thing is, there’s a limit to what you can do, isn’t there? I’m one of the sandwich generation – more of that, too, on another day – so I have both young grandchildren for whom I care twice a week whilst my daughter teaches, and parents with various health issues, who require a degree of support. In addition, I job-share with my husband – that’s how we make our living – and I write. Well, you know that already!

When I went down with my Female Flu ten days ago, I managed to keep most of the balls in the air, but some simply had to be dropped. Not exactly dropped, but temporarily suspended in that other arrangements had to be made for the twins. We’re in the middle of one of the busiest times of year in the business that employs us and, as we work from home, there’s simply no one else to take over. If we don’t do the job, it doesn’t get done.

So when I found myself expected to take on another family commitment at the weekend when I might have given myself some time to recharge my batteries, I wasn’t exactly delighted. I know some people know how to say no without saying no. I’m simply not one of them. Besides, I’m in that unenviable position of being a firstborn child.

SIBLING POSITION

Now I know there are those who passionately believe in first child syndrome and others who feel there’s nothing in it. Advocates identify the following traits in the eldest child in a family, they are:

  1. High achievers
  2. Good leaders
  3. Conscientious
  4. Self-sufficient
  5. Perfectionists
  6. Eager to please
  7. Have high expectations of themselves
  8. Feel responsible for the welfare and harmony of the family
  9. Low self-esteem (because they can’t live up to expectations)
  10. Sensitive
  11. In need of constant assurance

PEOPLE PLEASER?

Do you – if you are a firstborn child – adhere to those characteristics? Do you, for instance, have a people pleaser personality? Are you in constant need of assurance that you’re fulfilling what’s expected of you?

To my mind, there are arguments for and against. The gap between sibs must play a part, surely? If the eldest is at school, or has left home before the next one arrives, what then? And what if there’s a different combination of genders? Say a girl followed by several boys. Or vice versa: a couple of girls followed by a single boy? I can’t believe that the same principles hold for all scenarios. Or perhaps they do?

HIGH ACHIEVER?

Personally, I never achieved great things academically, but that may be because my parents moved to different parts of the country at crucial times in my schooling. Having to uproot mid-eleven plus meant I had to sit the exam twice because we were in a different LEA (Local Education Authority). This scenario was repeated shortly before I was to take my GCE’s, with the added problem that I was thrust, for the first time in my life, into a mixed-gender school. If a girl’s head could be turned from study by all those boys, then I was that girl!

RESPONSIBLE

As for the other attributes, I have certainly never had any desire to be a leader of anything whatever! Too much like hard work. No, not really :). But my interests and pursuits are those of an introvert. I’ve said it before: though I love my friends dearly, my energies are sapped by too much people-contact. I could, however, be described as self-sufficient, am conscientious, a perfectionist and have high expectations of myself – especially when it comes to feeling responsible for the welfare and harmony of my family. The sticking plaster mentality is probably true of many women. For me it’s – well – sort of stuck into my personality. If someone’s hurt or in need, I suppose I see myself as the one who has to tend and cover the wound!

Which is why I find it so difficult to say no and mean no. It doesn’t live up to people’s expectations of me, you see. Nor, of course, my own. My parents told me – on the one occasion I tried to stick out for something I believed in that went right against what they were asking of me – that my acquiescence was always taken as read. They had simply never expected me to oppose them and were shocked and hurt that I should do so. You see how difficult it is? My lack of support for that project has cost me dear. Years of being branded ‘difficult’ and ‘hostile’ whenever the subject is raised. It hasn’t meant that I’ve caved in. But neither has it changed my personality by making me either more or less likely to do the same again.

It makes you wonder if there really is any truth in this matter of birth order. How about you? Do you believe in all this stuff? Have you a story to tell that bears it out? Share it with us all, and help to enlarge the pool of knowledge.

Next time, I’m going to have a look at that all important matter of learning to say no – and mean it.

Related articles:

Birth Order: Middle Child and

Youngest Child In The Family: Paragon Or Pain?

Your Comments:

22nd December 2013
at 2:58am
Hey,
I am not the oldest child in the family of five kids. I am the second-born. The reason I have oldest-child syndrome is because the first born is male, and the rest are female. I am the oldest girl. And I have trouble saying no to my family, even when they want me to drive through a snowstorm to see them. I went through the female flu first. I went through the 'crazy about boys' stage first. My brother had a tougher time with the parents over some things, but over others had more freedom, 'because he's a boy'. I'd say oldest-child syndrome is very real, in cases of mixed gender house-holds it can be in more than one kid, depending on the situation.
Mel Menzies
12th March 2014
at 7:28pm
That's a very interesting take on the oldest child syndrome, Eleanor, and one I hadn't thought of before. I suppose, not having brothers, it was never a consideration in my family. But you're right about the freedom given to boys. I remember one mother telling me that someone had said to her 'I expect you'll be expecting your Johnny (not his real name) to sow his wild oats soon.' Oh, no, said the mother. Because he'll be sowing them on someone's daughter like my Jenny. It simply didn't occur to the person who made the remark.
Sasha
7th May 2014
at 6:33am
I believe in eldest-child syndrome because I' m one! I'm the firstborn child in family with one siblings (3 years gap) also the oldest cousin among my cousins in my mother's family with 8 years gap. Those traits that the advocates identify, 8 out of 10 are applied to me. Yes i tend to have more high achievements, I usually lead projects and meetings, I'm super-duper perfectionist and often have low esteem due to not achieving my high expectations (sometimes it can be depressing), I'm a people pleaser and like pleasing people (often put them first), my expectation to myself is much more higher then the average teenager in my age. Sensitive is my bestfriend and I have this feeling where I' responsible for my family (especially to my parents and little sister) and keep the peace and protect them financially and physically. Mel it's nice that you don't have the syndrome, you are so lucky you don't have to watch your sensitivity. By the way your article is really usefull and intrigue to readers. Keep on writting please?
madeline
6th September 2014
at 4:31am
I do have that syndrome but partially, first of 4 girls my mom constantly urged me to help my sister's and be a good example, that took a toll on my that even today I feel responsible for them and you can find me constantly advicing my sisters. I am organized in my way and a strong natural leader of the pack, never had to work it to be the desition maker or to be recognized by others as the one in command. On the other hand my mother was not stressed about school grades so I never developed a neccesity for high grades she was content with me passing my tests and so was i. Of my sister's I'm also (and this might sound bad but even they know it) the smartest one, universally known as the house brainiac, even when my second sister had best grades and even graduated cum laude and I did not. So I agree that there's a mayor influence On the character of a person.
Leanne Strong
15th December 2015
at 9:40am
I have Asperger Syndrome, and I'm the oldest child in a family of only 2 children (so technically I'm the older child). My brother (who is only 2 years younger than me) and me. And I'd say that in addition to setting high expectations for myself, I also set high expectations for others. If anybody (be it a peer, teacher, parent, etc.) even slightly deviated from following rules and codes of behavior the exact way I understood them, I would be so hard on that person, and sometimes even nasty (and I'm usually a kind, caring person). My brother on the other hand, was just happy to hang out and be a buddy. With his teachers, he just seemed happy to be in their class and be a student. He never seemed make a big fuss if anybody didn't follow rules and codes of behavior the way he understood them, just as long as you were being nice, and you were usually a nice person.

I think part of this is because the way my parents and teachers taught me about rules and behavior, it sounded like there was always a right and a wrong way to do everything. There were very few right ways to do things, and if you tried to do it any other way, it was wrong. With my brother, on the other hand, my parents didn't seem to make as big of a fuss about what he did. They seemed to have really gotten more relaxed about which behaviors deserve undesired consequences. Because of that, he might have learned more quickly that there can be more than one right way to do something, and that sometimes there really is no right or wrong way to do things.

I also think part of this might be because (as I said) I have Asperger Syndrome (High-Functioning Autism or Social Communication Disorder), and a lot of people on the Autism Spectrum are very rigid and concrete in the way they understand things. I thought the rules and codes of behavior were black and white. Something is either always right or always wrong. Either it's always this or it's always that, with nothing in the middle. My brother, on the other hand (he doesn't have any disabilities), understood that sometimes there might be grey areas.
3rd April 2016
at 2:20pm
That's an interesting take on the subject of eldest child syndrome, Leanne. I think parents are more black and white with their first born than with those that follow. I can probably even seen it in myself.

Thank you for sharing about your Asperger's, too. That puts a whole different perspective on the matter, thinking about the rigidity and concrete manner in which you view things.
Casey Howe
15th July 2016
at 7:20am
I am the oldest out of me and my other two siblings and feel I can believe this theory. I have got above average grades since before I can remember. However I don't think of myself as a big leader. My eagerness to please and high expectations of myself often leads to low self-esteem not often found amoung good leaders. This links to me being extremely sensitive in taking whatever anyone says about me very seriously. Seeking assurance doesn't really interlink with being a good leader and it is something I do often even for the most mundane of tasks. I found my self to be way more self-sufficient as I tend to plan every detail of my life and carry it out on my own for the most past with a little assurance. Wosrt of all is how conscientious I am about time and money. If I am even one minute late or have wasted a day I go ballistic. As far as I can see there is no link to any of these traits through genetics. My siblings only share a miniscule amount of these characteristics.

However it may be life experiences that mold how a person acts not their role in the family. Also a persons individual traits could show through here meaning it is not a result of being the eldest.

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