We don't wear shoes in our house. We do wear clothes. Yesterday I found my two daughters playing in the basement. Katie was wearing the jeans and sweater that I had helped her pick out earlier in the day. Annie Rose was naked except for a pair of muddy boots and her swim goggles. It had taken me a wrestling match and twenty minutes to get Annie Rose dressed in the morning. Now we were back to square one.
Birth order, in our experience, is a clear product of nurture over nature. Katie is the youngest in her birth family, the third child born to M. But in our family she is the oldest child, and her environment has molded her into a textbook case of a firstborn. She is eager to please; she craves approval; she is less likely to test boundaries.
Katie is extremely cautious about trying new things, whether it be a tall slide at the playground or an unfamiliar route to school. She has proven to be more responsible than a kindergartener should have to be, to the point that I need to remind her that I am Annie Rose's mother. She can be very bossy, which goes along with her self-appointed role as the one in charge.
Katie is a classic pleaser. Every report from her teachers is consistent: Katie is well behaved in the classroom, very polite and desperate to gain approval. She craves recognition for her achievements and even wants us to applaud after she finishes practicing each piece on the piano. When I discipline her, she often dissolves into tears, which makes it difficult to hold firm, but I do. A sensitive child, she takes criticism very seriously and teeters on the brink of self-punishment if she perceives that someone is displeased with her.
Then there is Annie Rose. My younger daughter, the classic second child. Annie Rose doesn't give a damn about pleasing me. She has no need for approval. She lives in her own little world; she sings and dances her way through the day with little concern for what others think of her actions. Her nursery school teacher once told me, "Annie Rose comes in here every day and stars in her own Broadway show." She learns amazing new things and feels no need for us to praise her accomplishments. She is wildly creative, fearless and completely uninhibited.
Katie began group swim class at age two, and when it wasn't her turn for personal instruction, she sat quietly on the pool steps, practicing her bubbles or strokes. Annie Rose has now begun swim class. I dress her in brightly colored bathing suits so she is easy to spot when she sinks to the bottom of the pool each time she jumps off the steps when the teacher's back is turned.
It would never have occurred to Katie to stray from the steps. It
never occurs to Annie Rose to stay on the steps. Although I sit inches
from the pool and sternly tell Annie Rose no, she waves me off like a
fly. Katie cries when disciplined; Annie Rose laughs at me half the
time, if she even acknowledges that I am unhappy with her actions.
Fortunately for Annie Rose, she can charm just about anyone, and her
willful disobedience is softened by her generous expressions of love
and affection for the people in her life. She bounces into school
every day with a huge grin on her face and greets her teachers with,
"Hello, my beautiful teachers! I feel so much love for you." That
makes it easier to tolerate the frustration when she refuses to put on
her coat to go out for recess.
Of course, the responsibility for this situation lies with us, the
parents. There is a reason that first kids tend to be more compliant.
When Katie was a toddler, she was our only focus. We were very strict
and closely monitored her behavior at all times. She never got away
with anything, and we devoted endless energy and attention to her. She
was our sole focus. I remember how all of our friends with more than
one child used to laugh and say, wait until you have another.
Well, now we have another. Less time, less energy and less reserves
have all translated into less stringent rules. My mom told me that
when my older sister Lisa was a little girl, she was allowed to have
one cookie after dinner. By the time my youngest sister, Lindsey, came
on the scene (the fourth child), my mom would tell her, "You want a
cookie? Take the whole box. Just get in the car. We're late for
And it is true, there is a certain amount of crap that you just have to
overlook if you want to make it through the day with multiple kids.
When Katie was a toddler, it was inconceivable to me that she would be
allowed to walk out the door in January in Chicago without her hat,
gloves, scarf, jacket and boots. If she was being cantankerous about
getting dressed, I fought the battle until I won, even if it took
But some mornings this winter, I have carried Annie Rose to the car
without so much as a jacket on, because otherwise Katie would have been
late for school, and I couldn't let Annie Rose hold the whole family
hostage because she was refusing to get dressed. (I brought her jacket
with us for later, but in the meantime I let her experience the
"natural consequence" of her actions, which was to simply feel cold for
a few minutes).
Of course, some of the behaviors that Annie Rose has learned as the
second child are very advantageous. As a toddler, Katie preferred to
be entertained constantly, because she always had the luxury of our
attention. Annie Rose has always had to share and wait her turn, and
as a result, she can entertain herself for hours with little or no
assistance from me. And although she is noncompliant, she plays
beautifully with other children and suffers none of the separation
anxiety that plagues Katie.
Raising Katie and Annie Rose has been in many ways a study of nature
versus nurture, particularly since Katie was adopted. Katie proves
time and again that nurture is a strong factor that cannot be
discounted. Her environmental birth order as the oldest in our family
is shaping how she navigates the world.
I was reminded of how different Katie's genetic birth order is when we
had a reunion last year with her birth family. Katie has an older
sister who is thirteen and an older brother who is ten. She and her
birth brother immediately took to roughhousing and wrestling, and her
birth mother kept calling to her son, "Be careful of Katie! Don't
knock her down."
M clearly views Katie as the little one, and it was amusing to watch M
treat Katie like the baby. But compared to her birth siblings, Katie
did look surprisingly small. Our big strapping daughter, the one who
we think of as a gentle giant, looked like a peanut.
There were other ways in which M infantilized Katie. She offered to
carry Katie when we were walking around, and Katie declined, because
the concept seemed so foreign to her. Katie, as the oldest in our
family, long ago abandoned the stroller and was somewhat shocked at the
idea of being carried.
It was fascinating to see how different things are when the same child
is viewed as the oldest by one person and the youngest by another.
Katie's adoption has created two worlds with sliding doors, and the
glimpse into an alternate universe was startling.
There are some negative effects of birth order behaviors, and I try to
counteract these patterns when I see them. Often, when Annie Rose is
throwing a fit, Katie will make comments such as, "I am the good one,
right?" And I cringe, because it is dangerous to allow the girls to
label themselves like that.
I respond with, "You are both wonderful kids. Annie Rose is not being
cooperative right now, but it doesn't mean she isn't a good kid." I
don't want Katie to think that being compliant means a kid is good,
because then she will be afraid that when she misbehaves she is bad.
Katie gets a not-so-secret thrill from watching Annie Rose act out, but
it is really important that Katie not feel self-imposed pressure to be
"the good one" simply because she is older and more responsible.
Andrew and I never tell the girls that they are "good" or "bad" but I
still see Katie struggling with the concept.
If only there were a perfect balance! I wish Katie wouldn't be so hard
on herself. I wish Annie Rose took criticism a little more seriously!
But I suppose if there were a perfect balance, we wouldn't talk about
classic firstborns and typical youngest children, because everyone
would be the same. Therapists would surely go out of business and
endless books would never have been published.
And sometimes, Andrew and I simply have to laugh about the behavior
patterns. Several months ago, our girls were extremely interested in
Martin Luther King, Jr. Katie had MLK Jr. Day off from school, and she
wanted to commemorate him. We even had a cake and candles because she
and Annie Rose wanted to sing happy birthday to him.
As part of our celebration, we bought several children's books about
Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the books had a picture of African
American protesters who had been arrested and imprisoned for staging a
sit-in. I explained to Katie that they had been unfairly arrested, and
that they had done nothing wrong. Then I told her how Martin Luther
King Jr. helped free the people. Annie Rose sat there, quietly
listening and sucking her fingers. I was sure that the whole
discussion was over her head. Katie sang We Shall Overcome, which she
had learned in school, and we taught the song to Annie Rose.
A few days later, Annie Rose hit Katie with a doll, and I marched her
upstairs into her room for a time out. There is a baby monitor in her
room, and the receiver is down in the kitchen. Katie and I were in the
kitchen when we heard Annie Rose chanting to me through the monitor:
"You are the jailer and I am the prisoner. You are the jailer and I am
the prisoner. I want Martin Wuther. Send Martin Wuther to fwee me."
Then she began singing We Shall Overcome.
My older daughter sits in time out until I tell her she is allowed to
come out, and she tearfully apologizes for her transgressions. My
younger daughter rejects her time out completely, assumes she has been
unjustly imprisoned and calls for Martin Wuther to free her. I guess
birth order behavior patterns are going to be harder to combat than I
had hoped. And if my kids get progressively less compliant, we are in
for it when the new baby arrives.