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Dealing with first-born syndrome

Girls splashing each other in the water

Boy toddler running arms in air - dealing with first-born syndrome 

My first-born needs to be first at everything. He seems to feel that being first to put on his socks, first to take off his socks, first to shower and first to get in and out of the car is his birthright. The competition between my boys has gotten so stiff that I often find myself being literally pushed aside so they can jostle for the title of “first down the stairs”.

I’m first in the birth order in my family, too. My son’s competitive nature frustrates me, but then I find myself needing to be fastest in my spin class, and the first in my rowing class to reach 2,000 metres. It has led me to wonder about this “me first” syndrome that seems to afflict many first-borns.

According to parenting expert Beverley Cathcart-Ross, co-author of Raising Great Parents and founder of The Parenting Network, you don’t even need to have a sibling to have the “me first” attitude, but it definitely contributes.

“First-borns always compete for their parents’ time and attention and they measure everything, from how many hugs and kisses they get to how many grapes,” she says. Plus, they compete for time with their younger siblings.

Sometimes this will result in difficult behaviour, or in your child saying something like, “I don’t like my brother.”

“You know that’s not true, but you have to think about what’s motivating them,” says Beverley. She advises parents avoid banter with their child. “Saying ‘that’s not nice,’ is missing the point. It’s not helping them.”

Often what that first-born is feeling is that they are no longer as special or wanted. They feel hurt and they begin to do something about it, like press for more attention, compete with their sibling or physically hurt them.

Parents tend to think this is just the child’s personality, but according to Beverley, it’s environmental. “We are creating that personality. Kids aren’t born like that; we bring it out in them,” she says.

It begins when that child is born. The first year goes by with them feeling like the centre of the universe. By the time they are two, they believe they are entitled to all this attention and become demanding. Parents sometimes give them what they want because it seems easier, faster or better.

“We reinforce the idea that they are most important and then we try to undo it,” says Beverley. “We need to move that child from egocentric to group centric. If they don’t learn it early enough, it will be quite an adjustment when a sibling arrives or they start school.”

It’s important to raise kids who are a good member of the family group. She says it may be a painful lesson at first, but it’s better in the long run, and parents will be able to see the difference in their child’s behaviour.

Make a change

Look for chances to teach them that they won’t always be first. “You walk down the stairs first or give the first piece of cake to someone else so they will learn how to take turns being first,” says Cathcart-Ross.

Work on long-term goals for all your children, especially if they are lagging in certain areas. Teach them that you value being kind, independent and respectful. Model and teach acceptance of mistakes as opportunities to learn. Accept their efforts, don’t require perfection and be aware of imposing high expectations.

Don’t overdo the praise. “We think that praise is important for a child’s self-esteem, but what we have learned is that too much praise can be damaging,” says Beverley. Parents tend to shower their children with comments that put them on a pedestal, which creates a sense of entitlement and children who are addicted to praise. “Change your language and focus on what they are doing. Instead of saying, ‘You’re the greatest artist,’ say, ‘It looks like you worked really hard on your art project.” Focus on the fun of participating, not the goal of winning, being first or best.

Praise versus encouragement

It is often hard to know the right things to say to your child and when. Beverley Cathcart-Ross, co-author of Raising Great Parents and founder of The Parenting Network, offers some advice about how to be encouraging rather than overdoing the praise:

Instead of overpraising: You are the best runner ever!

Encourage: You ran like the wind on the field today! Were you having a good time? (describe what you noticed)

Instead of overpraising: I can’t believe you went on the potty – I am so proud of you!

Encourage: You went on the potty twice today – that must feel great! (internal motivation)

Instead of overpraising: I like it when you clean up so nicely.

Encourage: You put away the toys and picked up all the books – what a difference a clean room makes! (focus on improvement)

Instead of overpraising: Wow, you ate all your dinner – I am so proud of you!

Encourage: Wow, you ate all your dinner – you must have been very hungry! (internal motivation)

Instead of overpraising: That is a beautiful painting – I love it!

Encourage: Look at all the different colours in that painting – is there a story that goes with it? (self-evaluation)


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July/August 2015.

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