Youngest Child In The Family: Paragon? Or Pain?
Where, in birth order, do you come among your siblings? Are you the youngest child in the family? Do you see yourself as different to your brothers and sisters? Are you aware of a gulf between them and you?
Having previously written about eldest child syndrome and middle child complex, today I’m going to begin a study on the concept of the youngest child in the family. Is it really the effect of birth order on the last born child that results in demanding behaviour and a spoilt child? Or could this conceivably be a disorder associated with indulgent parenting?
Let’s take a look at the commonly perceived features of being the youngest child in the family:
- everyone thinks them cute
- they’re the centre of attention
- they’re precocious
- their love of the limelight is considered entertaining
- they demand attention
- they’re indulged
- they’re spoiled rotten
- they get away with murder
- they’re molly-coddled
- they may be obnoxious
- they may be hated by siblings
It depends from whose viewpoint these features are seen as to whether they are considered beneficial or deplorable. Clearly, if you are the youngest child in the family, you may enjoy being thought cute and indulged with your every wish. However, this may infuriate your siblings, and the pleasure conferred on you will surely be countered by their displeasure. Who wants to be hated by their brothers and sisters?
The question is, which of these children, can truly be considered to be a spoilt child? The one who is indulged? Or those who dislike the baby of the family for displacing them as the apple of their parents’ eyes? And why, when you consider the definition of ‘spoilt’ – ‘injure the character of (esp. a child) by excessive indulgence’ Oxford Concise Dictionary – would any parent want to do that to their child? Put like that, it sounds like a form of abuse.
In order to arrive at any sort of conclusion, we need to unpack some of the items on this list and look at them in depth.
OR PERMISSIVE PARENTS?
Frequently, the birth of the youngest child in the family marks a point of bereavement or loss in the parents’ lives. ‘This is it!’ is their subconscious reaction. ‘The end of our years of fecundity.’ In grieving the demise of their own youth, is it any wonder that they risk becoming permissive parents?
We talk, light-heartedly, about our need of ‘retail therapy’ to compensate ourselves for having had a bad day. But the fact is that profound grief does expresses itself, instinctively, in self-comfort. Heartache for what was, and is no more, prompts us to hug ourselves; to rock back and forth; to soothe and calm ourselves; to simulate the way in which a loving mother might console us.
For a parent mourning the passing of their own fertility, the personification of what was is in their last born child. Small wonder, then, that that child is seen as the cutest, and becomes the centre of attention. The parents’ attempts at self-comfort (for the loss of their youth and fertility) may be seen in the way they treat their youngest child. In permitting themselves to indulge in a type of permissive parenting they would have frowned upon with their older children, they are consoling themselves for their perceived loss.
But indulgent parenting is more than simply lavishing affection and attention on a child. Just as the parents may be mourning the end of their fertile years, so, too, they may experience a different kind of loss. Their need to be needed may be the catalyst for a subconscious desire to create need in their youngest child. A level of need which is no longer apparent in their older offspring may thus, deliberately, be fostered in the baby. This is where the molly-coddling comes in. Over-protective and fussy, the parents’ need to be needed is thus fulfilled.
The concept of demanding babies is a paradox because babies, by nature, are demanding. How can they be otherwise when their very survival depends upon it? ‘I need feeding / changing / comforting / cuddling / a change in temperature . . .’ Unless a baby demands these things by crying, how is a parent to know? But infants whose dependence is nurtured excessively and deliberately, may well become ever-demanding babies who, in turn, become over-demanding toddlers.
It’s when a demanding baby becomes a demanding toddler that we realise the problems we’ve created for ourselves. Babies born last in the family arrive, more often than not, at a point when their parents have more money, but less time than previously. I read, recently, of a child of three who, his mother wrote in a leading UK newspaper, knows that if he screams for long enough, he will be indulged. And this is another aspect of the picture: the parents who indulge the youngest child because they feel the pressures of increased family / time constraints / work / age-related tiredness / lack of stamina. Isn’t it easier, under these circumstances, simply to give in?
Well, no, actually! But more of that another time.
THE AGE OF THE YOUNGEST CHILD MUST BE A FACTOR
Youngest children, we’re told, love the limelight. The cutest kids – as perceived by Western eyes – are often those with the highest entertainment factor. I have to admit that, as a mother, my children’s antics filled me with pride and joy. My middle daughter, for some years the baby of the family, was a little clown with a wickedly dry sense of humour. A favourite at parties – particularly with the fathers of her friends – she both thrived on, and nurtured, the attention.
My middle sister was, likewise, the youngest child in the family for many years. She, too, was a born entertainer: ‘in your face’ in a way which my parents would never have countenanced in me. Immensely popular, to this day she retains a sense of humour which I would describe as having ‘high shock value’. She rarely tells jokes, as such, but is gifted in seeing wit in the activities of those around her. Her observations are often unexpected and faintly embarrassing. Except that they’re not because they’re so funny!
My youngest child, mother of the twins, was not born until my older two were at school. Like my youngest sister, she was virtually an only child. By the time each of them began school, their older sibs had moved on to the next stage of their education: different curriculum; different location. Quiet and sensitive, particularly after the breakdown of my marriage to her father, my youngest child’s sense of humour is not immediately apparent. But when it shines forth, it is a gem!
All of which makes me wonder: is there anything in this so-called birth order syndrome? Frankly, I have my doubts. My faith is firmly in nature versus nurture. And in a personality type indicator which may, or may not, be influenced by where in the family we’re born.
But I may be wrong? Perhaps you have indisputable evidence of a youngest child conforming to preconceived ideas? If you’ve anything to add to the debate, please do leave a comment.