April 28, 2005


Remember those scary stories about fairies that lure the innocent deeper and deeper into the woods at sundown? Somehow this blog is like that, it teases from the edge of my mind, inviting me to expose my self, my problems, my fears. And, why are the fears there if we're not meant to challenge them?

So, I am a youngest child, the youngest of five. The older four were born within a span of about six years and then there was a seven year pause, and then I happened along, as fate would have it.

You have heard the stereotypes of the youngest kid-- here's from the Dr. Spock website: 'fussed over and pampered..sensitive, people-oriented, indulged, dependent, relaxed, fun, flaky.' That description missed the nail and hit my thumb. From the same source, these words are a little better: 'tenacious..never quite measure up to their more experienced and accomplished siblings..they get no respect.'

I also agree with the evaluation of Dr. Gayle (also of cyberspace): 'Perhaps the truest and most consistent finding is that last born children tend to be slower at accepting responsible roles, since they have not experienced being older and more capable than someone else in the family. It is easy as a youngest to question your judgment and abilities, unless of course there are other mitigating factors that help you to gain confidence in your ability to handle responsibility and making decisions. '

It comes naturally to me to assume that other people are more capable than I am. The good part is that it has given me an open democratic leadership style, but I see also that it creates problems. Again and again I treat students as equals, letting them decide (with my advice) their own course of study, or how to proceed in research. The good part is that then they gain experience themselves and they learn to take responsibility for their own success and failure, but the downside is that they can get mad at me when things don't turn out well and they feel I should have guided them (goose marched them?) past the problem. I am not good at being a traditional authoritarian leader who tells the students that now they are going to do this, and then this and then this. It doesn't work for me.

My situation was extreme in that the older four function as a unit-- they have their roles all worked out, and they worked out my role for me when I was busy carrying around my favorite blanket. The seven to thirteen years between us presented a challenge. How to describe it? I tried in vain to be one of them. Learned all the family stories and could almost make myself believe I had been there too even though the events in question had often occurred before I was born. As teenagers my siblings were no different from most in terms of rebelling and giving our parents grey hair, and this was pretty scary to watch as a preschooler. There was one study of college-age kids that reported that 25 % of firstborns had nightmares while 85 % of last borns had them. The experience left me with no illusions about reality-- I knew there were hard knocks out there a waitin'. The good part is that I've always thought that watching 'them' gave me some insight and saved me from having to try out some things myself.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression and my sister-in-law told an interesting story of her first impression of me. (I don't remember this). Apparently the family drove up to The Cities for Christmas shopping and at a mall (Southdale? Rosedale? Brookdale?) we split into groups and were to meet at a certain fountain at the predetermined time. I was assigned to her and my oldest brother, and I apparently had a cold and just followed them around sniffling the whole time. I was and in some way of seeing it still am a snot nosed brat. I could never compete on equal terms with any of them-- the problem is that no matter what you do when you are 7 it just isn't interesting to someone who is 20, and no matter what you do when you're 20 it is small potatoes to someone who is in their early 30s and working on a career and family. Its a moving target. I'm sure everyone has had their share of less than graceful moments when they were kids. My older siblings and sometimes their spouses were there to see mine and they don't mind reminding me about it. That's fate.

I'm just getting warmed up. One of my sisters once told me her theory that I had 'grown up with six parents.' The problem with this model is that sure, I looked up to these four older siblings a lot and they could function sometimes as surrogate parents for me. But unlike true parents these four had their own lives, and one by one they moved away, piff, paff, poff and puff, leaving an empty house. Most parents want what's best for their kids but with these four sibling rivalries get in the way, rivalries in which the playing field is not level. I remember being a little little brother of 5 or so and socking my oldest brother at roughly my own eye level. He fixed me with a stern look and said, 'Don't do that' and so I stopped. You see these cute nature films of bear cubs playfully chewing each others ears and some of that kind of scuffling around would have been a good thing but wasn't possible. My parents were dividing their time between five kids and doing a great job of it and yet my siblings resent me somehow for having gotten more attention from my parents than they did. When was that supposed to have taken place?

I have been notably unsuccessful at telling any of them any of this-- they won't believe it, know it didn't happen and they know that no matter what may have happened to me, they had it much worse.

Conclusion from Dr. Gayle: Some of my clients describe their experience as the youngest to be difficult because "everyone has an opinion about what they should do". These clients often struggle with identifying their own beliefs and identity. They find that they sometimes need to exert greater effort towards the realization that their opinion about something "counts". Other youngest borns feel left out of the family, (.....or particularly smothered by the attention and concern about their welfare by every other person in the family.)


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