on October 13, 2017 parenting education

The Case for Raising Your First Child Like Your Third

I am the father of three boys, and around the time my youngest was five, an interesting thought began to develop. My wife, Tracy, and I had started to notice that we were raising our third child very differently than our other two, ages twelve and fourteen at the time. We were much more relaxed in bringing up our third, as much of the intensity, fear, and questioning was gone.

Honestly, and our third son has pointed this out to us on numerous occasions, we also did not take as many pictures of him, and those calendars/memory books, where we had religiously marked “the first smile,” or “the first step,” or “the first full sentence spoken” for the first two boys, were either empty or non-existent. We did not love him any less than his brothers, but we did not feel that same pressure to do some of these features; we had license to not worry about them.

After talking it over with friends in the same stage of life, I began to create notes for what some day will become a book. The hope was that I could, in some small way, help parents to realize that they did not have to be perfect, that there was no panacea for all that comes at you during these years, and that, mostly, parenting was meant to be joyful and fun. I also knew the children would most likely benefit from a little less intervention from the adults in their lives. If parents could raise their first child with some of the lessons many of us had learned by going through it already, maybe this would make for a less stressful existence for parents and their children.

For example, and this may resonate with parents with more than one child, issues arose around the “magical” pacifier. When child #1 would drop his pacifier on the ground when he was little, we would often have brought another with us to pop into his mouth just in case this happened. It needed to be sterile. We would then take the one that had been dirtied, and have it sit in boiling water before we could rightfully give it back to our son. When the same situation occurred with our second child, we might have sterilized it, but with our third, we simply wiped the pacifier on our pants and stuck ‘er back in. I don’t remember there being any increase in sickness as a result. The intensity and fear dissipated the more we became experienced at this important calling.

I want to stress the things that one should be focused on, such as the importance of play with your child, the power of family routines and traditions (we still celebrate baseball’s Opening Day with hotdogs, pretzels, and cracker jacks), and a recognition that each child is unique and different.  Here are four things to consider:

  1. Love your child, but DON’T be in love with your child.
    This seems like a subtle difference, but it is not. If the mood of your day depends entirely on your children, they will sense this and feel smothered. They might take advantage of this for their own benefit. It is important to show them you love them, but that you also have your own interesting things going on in your life. Don’t make it all about them.
  2. Model that being an adult can and should be fun.
    You want your children to look forward to ultimately becoming an adult. You don’t want them thinking adults are only stressed and focused on their children. I’m baffled when I hear parents of college-age students share that they know their child has a big test that day. That does not seem healthy to me for any party.
  3. How much did your mom know about what you were doing in 5th grade at school?
    I have asked dozens of parents over the years this question. The answer has typically been, “Nothing!” I then follow up by asking, “Was that a good thing or a bad thing?” One hundred percent of adults say that it was a good, or more often, a great thing! Why has this changed so drastically? Why do we need to know everything that is going on all of the time?
  4. What you do, and how you do it, is the single most important lesson.
    Words are just words to children if the action does not follow the words. This is especially true of “fairness-based” teenagers. We’ve all known this since we were very young, yet many adults have forgotten how important it is to “do what you say.”  I’ll never forget when my father refused to get a children’s movie ticket for my really small younger brother, when he was just a couple of months too old to qualify for it. While we were in line for tickets, my older brother said, “Dad, they will never know, and you can save a couple of bucks!” Dad, said, very firmly, “No. It is just not the right thing to do.”

A few years ago, I ran a faculty meeting centered on birth order. I separated the group, of roughly 80 teachers, into four groups- first born, last born, middle child, and only child. I asked them to discuss within their group what stereotypes were associated with their place in the family birth order, and then to talk about whether the typecast was at all true. They finished by sharing what it was really like.  Interestingly, the oldest children seemed to mirror some of the pressures that their parents had placed on them. It was fun to hear each group share their perspectives.

It was evident that these first-born children were type A individuals who felt lots of pressure, their report cards really mattered, they were consistently expected to be perfect, often taking the blame, and being labeled as bossy.  Clearly, there is no science in this, but the middle children said they were more relaxed, smarter because they learned from their older siblings’ mistakes, and often were a buffer within the family. They seemed to have a very different childhood experience than the oldest children. What was your experience like?

It has been nearly a decade since I began exploring this whole idea, and many would say that things have drastically changed since then. The iPhone did not exist, and social media, which seems to be the center of too many adults’ and students’ lives, was not wreaking havoc on the family structure and ethos.  There are new, different pressures.  24-hour news cycles were not a focus, and the world was not constantly characterized as a place centered on violence and fear.

In The Collapse of Parenting, Dr. Leonard Sax categorizes this culture as toxic. He suggests that we have forgotten how important it is to teach our children the importance of having respect for adults, and as a result the messages that children are getting about adulthood and parenting is neither healthy nor grounded in admiration and appreciation. He highlights that children are not born as gentlemen or ladies; they must be taught to be this way.

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The most popular TV shows of the 1960s through the 1980s consistently depicted the parent as the reliable and trusted guide of the child. It was true of The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s; it was true of Family Ties in the 1980s. But it is not true today. (The Collapse of Parenting, p.22). 

If you reflect on some of the parent models our children see today on television and in movies, or on stories they have access to on the Internet around disturbing parental behavior, you can certainly understand why this shift has occurred. Therefore, it has gotten more and more important for us to be those models of responsibility, consistency, and authority. If we are not those steadfast, dependable examples, they are quick to turn to their friends for information and to images this “toxic” culture has engineered.

Parents today are feeling irrational pressure to do everything just right; it is creating unhealthy stress and anxiety at every turn. They seem to believe that if they are not making sure their children experience every possible opportunity then they are letting their children down, and ultimately not being good parents. Please remember that there are no perfect parents, and there are no perfect children. That is what makes this endeavor so very interesting and fun, despite some of the headaches and challenges.

Please don’t forget that parenting should mostly be fun and filled with joy. There is truly nothing better than playing with your children, laughing with them, and ultimately having meaningful conversations with them. Enjoy them. Celebrate them. Tell and read them stories. But also teach them self-control, hold them accountable, and make them be present with you and others, as this world is about people. And next time that pacifier hits the ground, cut yourself some slack, and just wipe it on your pants and stick ’er back in.

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Bruce Wilhelm, Assistant Head of School at University School

Bruce Wilhelm, the Assistant Head of School at University School, has played many roles in his nearly 30 years in education – teacher, coach, advisor, dean, mentor, and division head. He has a strong belief that all children have their unique strengths, and good schools identify these strengths and celebrate them. Bruce, the son of teachers himself, is the father of three boys.