10 Tips for Parenting Firstborns

How to handle your reliable, conscientious, structured, controlling, perfectionist firstborn.
What You Need to Know About Your First-Born
What You Need to Know About Your First-Born
Red haired mom and freckled son smiling while leaning on couch

Firstborn children tend to become mini-adults far before their years. They are hardworking, diligent achievers who're ready and able to please the adults around them. Of course, they also can be a bit controlling about having things done "their way." Here, 10 tips on how to groom your firstborn to make these predisposed characteristics work in his favor.

1. Let your firstborn child make her own decisions. As far as you're concerned, your daughter is the best pirouetter in her ballet class. So maybe she'd be good at jazz dancing, you figure, and tap, hip-hop, even ballroom. But signing her up for a slew of new lessons can backfire on you. You're not giving her options -- you're grooming her to be a Jill of all trades, when in fact she may have no interest in learning the foxtrot. Since firstborns tend to be achievers, they're more likely to do what you ask them to do, regardless of whether they actually like it. Remember, it's one thing to introduce your child to something new; it's another to assume that if they continue long enough, they'll "learn to like it."

2. Don't expect your child to be your eyes and ears. "A good rule of thumb is not to expect your older children to be babysitters for the younger ones," Dr. Kevin Leman, a psychologist who has studied birth order for almost four decades, writes in The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are (Revell). Just because they're older doesn't mean they should be held accountable for the fact that their younger siblings decided to finger-paint the walls.

3. Don't nit-pick. Resist the urge to rewipe the countertop your firstborn has already cleaned. This will reinforce your firstborn's already-ingrained perfectionist traits.

4. Help your child see the big picture. Firstborns tend to become so focused on perfecting the task at hand that they sometimes may not see anything else. As Dr. Leman puts it, perfectionism is not always strength. Is it imperative that your 8-year-old stay up to the wee hours finishing his project to win the blue ribbon at the science fair? Or is it more important that he do a good job, learn about the solar system, and actually enjoy what he's doing?

5. Don't spotlight your firstborn's skills -- spotlight your firstborn. Yes, we -- and everyone else who has seen the baby pictures you whip out of your wallet as if it was a reflex -- know you're proud of your first child. Yes, it's wonderful that he's earning straight As, plays Tchaikovsky like a prodigy, and is the star pitcher on the elementary school baseball team. But make sure that your first-time-parent enthusiasm isn't becoming overbearing for your little Einstein.

"What can happen easily is that in the parents' endeavor to create the best possible outcome, they can scrutinize the firstborn," says child and family therapist Meri Wallace, author of Birth Order Blues (Owl Books). "They often can pressure their child to be perfect." Praise your child, not your child's skill. Even innocuous phrases like "Great job!" can be made better with a qualifying statement that reflects more on them than their work, like, "We're proud of you."

6. Emphasize patience. "Realize firstborns have a particular need to know exactly what the rules are," Leman writes. "Be patient and take time to lay things out for your firstborn A to Z." This will set a good example for him to follow, grooming him to be patient with his peers in the same way you are with him.

7. Teach your child to go halfway. "No" is a common word out of any youngster's mouth, but this may be doubly so with firstborns. Firstborns tend to be leaders, and this trait can manifest itself as aggression or bossiness. If your daughter insists on playing house "her way," her insensitivity may cause her to be ostracized from her peers. Show her that a "my way or the highway" attitude doesn't always work by emphasizing sharing and compromise.

The next time she refuses to share Barbie's dreamhouse with her younger sister, get both girls involved in an activity that doesn't revolve around a "claimed" possession, like hopscotch or finger-painting, to foster sibling bonds without stirring up possessive feelings.

8. Your child is not a Faberge egg... You are a parent, not a policeman -- your 7-year-old son won't turn into a criminal if you let him play racing games on his Xbox. While you may feel that the only way to raise a decent child is to give him plenty of rules and discipline (other than raising him in a plastic bubble, of course), this has all the markings of a rebellious time-bomb.

Instead of raising him like a Stepford child, enforce rules that are truly necessary -- and explain to him why these rules are in place. This will not only let him understand the reasoning behind your actions, it'll also let you literally hear whether or not your demands are as reasonable as you think they are. Since this is your first time parenting, it might be wise to ease up on the iron first.

9. ...But your child is not a punching bag, either. Having a child who obeys your every command seems like a dream, right? Well, imagine that your child grows up to be a such a brown-nosing people-pleaser that he takes on doormat qualities. The problem with grooming an overly cooperative child is that while it's good that he or she is a master at the art of compromise, "compliant firstborns are well-known for taking it and being walked on by a world that loves to take advantage of them," Leman writes. Show them how to set limits by giving them age-appropriate responsibilities.

10. Spend time with the firstborn, especially if he has a lot of siblings. "Firstborns respond better to adult company than children of any other birth order," Leman writes. "Firstborns often feel that parents don't pay much attention to them because they're always concentrating on the younger ones in the family. Make a special effort to have the firstborn join you and your spouse in going out alone for a treat, or to run some kind of special errand." Mindfully spending quality time with your firstborn can also alleviate any resentment the eldest might feel toward his younger siblings.

Understanding Your Firstborn's Personality

Want to know more about what classically makes up the firstborn mentality? Check out the following stories and quizzes on birth order.

Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, September 2006.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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