Parenting Traps

A second-born solution

The argument for tailored, unequal treatment.

By Jane Dornbusch
January 17, 2010

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When I was pregnant with my second child, I had a secret I didn’t share with anyone. I loved my firstborn so much, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to love another baby in the same way. I was afraid that no other baby would ever be so special to me; I just couldn’t imagine it.

I wasn’t entirely wrong, as it turned out. I didn’t love my second-born in exactly the same way -- because it was clear from the moment she appeared, she wasn’t exactly the same kind of person. She was just as special to me, and just as loved, but try as I might, I couldn’t consistently give my kids evenhanded treatment.

It isn’t easy being second-born. (And no easier, I’d imagine, to be third, fourth, or fifth.) It’s not just the hand-me-downs, the paucity of baby photos, the teachers who smile knowingly each September and say, “Oh, so you’re Abby’s sister.” Arriving second means you hardly ever get to do something first. Going to kindergarten? Seen it before. Riding a bike? No biggie. Basketball championships? Been, done. Careful as my husband and I have been to celebrate Julia’s accomplishments, we can’t escape the nagging feeling that she never quite gets the applause she deserves.

But like so much parental guilt, this may have more to do with us than with our children. Kids don’t need our single-minded attention so much as they want our cleareyed regard. “The best thing parents can do, whether they have one kid or 10 kids, is to really see each child for who he or she is and appreciate them for those things,” says Linda Braun, professor emeritus of family studies at Wheelock College. Parents are different with every child, says Braun -- and that’s as it should be.

Because no two kids are alike, more important than the doomed struggle to treat your kids equally is the subtler task of figuring out who they are and what they need. Nowadays, after years of futilely trying to even the score, we just try to send our younger daughter this message: We love you for who you are, and second-born does not mean second-best.

Do you think siblings should be treated equally?

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