By Bethany Lynch, The Graceful Mom
My husband grew up with an older brother. I have step-siblings but grew up mostly with a younger brother. Now my husband and I have a son and daughter. We all have very different opinions and takes on the advantages and disadvantages to our sibling relationships. I find birth order and gender relationships very intriguing. My favorite book on this topic is The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are by Kevin Leman, a great author for all things from discipline to potty training to spicing up your marriage. According to Dr. Leman, most comedians are the youngest children in their families, and 21 out of the first 23 astronauts on the moon were first-born children. (The other two were only children). His book is unique in that he discusses many other variables than just nominal birth order.
Although not specific to parents following the Babywise series, I find that it is all too easy for us to make excuses based on the gender of our children. We focus on schedules, independent play, even first-time obedience but we don’t always think twice about saying, “Well, he is just being a boy!” Yes, there are strong gender differences and traits. Yes, I really do think birth order and spacing can explain some of our personality traits, but the last thing I think we should do is overlook behavior predominantly because it is typical for that gender. On the other hand, I think we also have to be very careful not to define our children by their birth order nor try to treat them all the same.
Let me give you an example. My son has extremely typical traits of a first-born. Perfectionist, achiever, articulate, logical, scholarly. Add in that his primary love language is words of affirmation. Bathing the two kids together was becoming a nightmare. There were more fights the second I turned my back or sometimes before they could even climb in the tub. We came down hardest on our son…he’s the oldest, he should know better, he should treat his sister better. It turns out, she was the one picking a fight with him. She had learned we would start with him and criticize him first. We have also learned how harshly he takes criticism. Taking him aside and talking to him away from the heat of the moment is so important. It often takes 4-5 kind words of praise to undo 1 harsh phrase of criticism.
On the flip side, our daughter is quite emotional with feelings dripping off her sleeves. She cries when she is tired, when she wakes up, when she first sits down for snack, when she doesn’t like the snack choice, when you look at her funny, and so forth. It has been quite a new adventure for my husband who is still learning female nuances after 10 years of marriage. Consoling her is a fine line. There are times where I see the look in her eyes and know immediately that she just needs a hug…and to cry. There are times when the crying is so ridiculous and out of control that she needs firm love and direction to pull herself together. She is a girl and needs to be approached in a specific manner; however, we will not, nor have not, changed the way we handle temper tantrums or sour attitudes “just because she is a girl.”
It has also been fun to watch the dynamics between a sister and brother. While I am used to some of the differences in growing up with a sibling of a different gender, I was the typical first-born and my baby brother was the youngest. I still give him a hard time for all of the times I remember taking the heat for being old enough to know better when really he had gotten away with something! It is an easy trap to miss. It is a little more confusing when you have to add gender differences to the sibling order. All the same, there are some general rules that I think fall in line with the -wise mentality.
- Boys do need a lot of physical time to use their energy, even to wrestle. They also need to know the boundaries between appropriate hard play and out of control roughhousing. Practice, practice, practice.
- Boys often need more preparation to sit still and focus on topics other than their favorite subject.
- Boys need to learn how to treat mommies, sisters, and other girls. Have your son practice serving his sister first at supper. I fully believe boys should learn courtesy at home first.
- Boys also need ways to learn how to handle their anger. There is nothing like watching a boy go from zero to sixty, revved up, swinging, and looking for something to knock down. Teach your son that it is okay to be angry but he needs to find words to express that and other ways to let the steam off. Even if it comes down to giving him a pillow he can squeeze or punch, it is way better than him raging so out of control he hurts someone else, himself, or breaks something. We’ve even had to practice how to handle being hurt. His first tendency is to jump up and down, and he’s had to learn the hard way that he will hurt himself even worse.
- Girls do need to cry…a lot sometimes. Not all, but practicing how to gain control over emotions with daughters is usually very different than sons. I find our son to be very angry but logical if he is upset. Our daughter is just hysterical, in pieces, over something we would consider trivial. Teaching her how to regain control of herself and calm down has been a monumental task some days.
- Girls need to find beauty on the inside…and this absolutely has to start at home. While pretend play is excellent and extremely important, make sure she hears how beautiful she is even when she is not dressed up as a princess.
- Look for natural tendencies in your children, whether it is gender related or birth order related or neither. There are times I have allowed one child to stay inside and read because that is one of her most favorite activities in life. There are times I have bathed one child because the other does not find it nearly as relaxing or therapeutic. There are also times where the instruction/rule was that it was bath night–no exceptions. While our “rules” are the same, we still allow a lot of time for each child to be an individual.
- Things that I believe should not be exceptions because of gender are hitting, kicking, temper tantrums, screaming, rudeness. All of these seem obvious but in the actual situation make sure that you have an exit strategy already planned. By that I mean, know the planned consequence and carry it out even if you think the behavior was natural for a boy or girl in that situation.
- Things that I believe should be be exceptions because of birth order are always coming down harder on an older child “just because” they are older. Teach them responsibility and rules, not exceptions based on a younger age. Do not overlook younger age because “they might not understand.” As a mother of a VERY cognitively-smart but speech-delayed child, do not ever underestimate all that they might understand. Keep the rules and expectations the same even if you have to modify explanation or approach.
Bethany blogs at The Graceful Mom about life as a working mom outside of the home and adores coming home to her husband and children, ages 5 and 3.