Oct 28, 2013

    The mystique of the No. 2 child

    MY YOUNGER son, Lucien, turns four today - which leads me to think of the mystique of the second child.

    Born into a world where there has always been someone else competing for his parents' attention, the second child is, by circumstance - if not nature - a survivor. The fact that the second child exists at all is a victory, given that the parents could well have sworn off having more children after the shock of caring for their first baby.

    With mum and dad having to spread their time between two tykes, the second-born more often than not adapts and evolves differently from the firstborn, who was an only child (read: king or queen) for at least nine months of his life.

    And, while everything was a revelation with the first child, the second child's milestones often go unremarked, passing in the shadow of the former's accomplishments.

    In this environment of muted pride and approval, No. 2 is rarely allowed to inflate his ego unchecked. The flip side? We are more relaxed in parenting them and they get the benefit of our wisdom gleaned from experimenting on No. 1.

    Playing second fiddle to the erstwhile emperors and empresses born before them, second children are often said to develop a higher emotional quotient, or EQ. After all, one must learn to predict the weather, if one has little control over the storms that are an elder sibling's wrath and tantrums.

    In our family, Lucien is the sweet peacemaker. He is sensitive to others' moods, and is constantly trying to read the feelings of those around him. "Happy or sad?" he would ask, peering with concern at your face, if he senses something is off.

    While I am reminding my elder son - who is seven years old and the issuer of a gag order on his name in this column - not to snatch playthings from his younger brother, Lucien pats my arm and requests with a winsome smile: "Don't scold him, okay?"

    I reply: "Okay, but he must stop bullying you first."

    Lucien immediately turns to his big brother and says in dulcet tones: "Don't bully me, okay?"

    Birth-order theories abound in pop psychology: While firstborns are often thought to be more focused, confident and likely to excel, second or youngest children are the ones most likely to be tactful, good at negotiating, creative and charming.

    A quick poll of my friends with two kids bears these theories out. Cool and elegant Ms T, for instance, said her three-year-old daughter is easy-going and hardly complains when her big brother, six, bosses her around.

    No. 2 is the one who knows just when to make you laugh - so that you'll forget about reprimanding him about, say, putting snot on your pristine wallpaper.

    "Eat slowly, or you'll choke," says Papa to Lucien. Lucien looks at Papa and does his best imitation of a crazed beaver gnashing its teeth on high speed. Papa cracks up with laughter.

    Did I mention that second children are supposed to be more rebellious?

    A study of 364 American offspring, published in the Child Development journal in 2009, the year Lucien was born, claimed that firstborn children are more likely to conform, while their younger siblings are more likely to be adventurous and independent.

    So far, so true.

    Me: "Lucien, don't jump on the sofa."

    Lucien: *Jumps on the sofa with redoubled vigour*

    Another study from Cambridge University in 2011 found, after observing 250 children, that younger children's bickering and other interaction with their older siblings hone their social skills and vocabulary. This results in them being more likely to be successful later in life.

    So, happy birthday, Lucien. You're in fine company with other No. 2s such as Bill Gates, Robert Downey Jr, Jan Vermeer, Tina Fey and Florence Nightingale.