Siblings - the order does mean something

Occupying the third slot in a sibling line up of four is a piece a cake

Confession time. As the third girl, I reap the rewards of battles already fought about make up, music, boys and nights out.

Which leaves me free to spend my time pinching (and stretching out of shape) my sisters' trendy clothes, piercing every available space in my ears and shaving my head to reveal birth marks I never knew I had. When my younger brother makes his appearance, even better. At last, someone to rid me of my "Baby" title. Life is complete.  

No doubt others will tell a very different life experience about coming third in the sibling race. One thing is for sure, they will have a story to tell. Anyone who can call themselves a sibling has a part of them which developed from their position in the family.

It is probably safe to make certain generalisations. The first child is often labelled responsible, anxious, quiet, helpful, a surrogate parent to the younger ones. They are told: "We need you to be responsible" and "You're our grown up boy/girl". The youngest child, on the other hand, is sweet, spoiled, babied and indulged. They are told: "Don't grow up too quickly" and "Enjoy your childhood". The middle positions are murkier. It seems that they depend upon whether you are an only middle child or share the title with one or more of your sibs. Some of us love life in the middle lane, others describe it as hell. Most people would say that their sibling roles rarely leave them as adults. You only have to watch each other at family gatherings to see how easy it is to slip back into role. I once met a dynamic and scary chief executive who intimidated the hell out of me - until I learned that he was the youngest of seven children. My perspective on him shifted. Maybe being so low down the list helped him to climb so high.

The effect of different parenting styles together with a good dose of sibling rivalry is enough to have us all queuing up for a go on the analyst's couch. Here are some sibling labels I've come across.

The older son or daughter to whom no one else can match up.

The "second child syndrome". This occurs when your first child is easy and does everything when the books say they will, while your next child appears to come from the planet nasty. "Why can't you be more like…." you cry and boy, does the label stick.

"She's a typical middle child". This could mean difficult, quirky, independent, lonely or just different in some way. This is my theory on difficult middle children. They once knew life as the youngest in a way their older sibling never did. Then one day, they get replaced by a newer version. Suddenly they are shoved into middle place, neither the first, nor the baby. Ouch.

Looks versus brains. This is our beautiful Lara. This is Tara. She's the brains of the family. It's a bit like being told you've got a good personality.

The baby of the bunch. Sometimes they become the toughest nut in their bid to make themselves heard over the older din. Often, the youngest gets used to a life of having things done by others - excuses are made, the tab is picked up. My baby brother in gestation exhausted my mother. He was a huge baby and apparently he was taking rather too much of her blood supply. No change there then.

I could go on, but I won't. So what is the message for us as parents? How can we maximise the positive elements of position in the family and minimise the negative ones? Here are five suggestions:


1. Celebrate their differences. Each child is unique so let's treat them as such.


2. Avoid constant comparisons (easy to say, I know) and encourage your nearest and dearest to enjoy each developmental stage for what it is, rather than trying to recall "if Rachel was reading at five or not".


3. Try not to overcompensate for the arrival of a new sibling. Some parents expend so much energy to keep the first child from feelings of dethronement that the second child ends up feeling left out!


4. Check your children when they give each other cruel labels. Most nicknames are given in fun, but living your life with the family badge of "Fat Legs", "Shorty" or "Thicko" can take its toll.


5. Acknowledge your children's feelings about their sibs. They may well love each other, but they are quite capable of hating each other at times too. When they express this - listen. You don't have to agree but you can empathise.


When siblings grow up, they cease to move in a mass. They may stay close (emotionally if not physically) or they may grow apart. If they don't keep in touch or worse, rifts develop between them, it is so sad. The ones that do stay together may drive each other nuts at times, but the fun and camaraderie born out of the shared experience of upbringing is like nothing you can ever have with a friend, partner, or work mate. It is to be cherished.

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