I’ve concluded that most of us chalk up all the great things our first child does to our stellar parenting skills, when in fact our influence is a lot less than we think. And this becomes apparent when child #2 rolls up in the house and shows just how different two little ones can be – and just how much is out of our control as parents.
At least, this is what happens if you have an easy kid the first time around and a more, um, challenging one follows. Well, I guess it would also be true if you have a really tough first kid and think you must be doing something wrong (why is everyone else having such an easy time of it?!) – then get an angel baby the second time around. Those lucky ducks with all easy babies are probably strolling around blissfully ignorant to the fact that, well, they are lucky ducks – not parent-of-the-year ducks. Baby sleeping through the night? That’s because we had a great bedtime routine / co-slept / Ferberized / put cereal in his bottle (circle one)! Little one talking early? Well, we don’t let him watch television and we read lots of books, of course. Happy and sociable? We are just friendly people. Kids learn what they see, you know. Let me tell you how to fix your kid’s problems – just do what I did….
I admit it. I was one of those mommas who chalked up my first-born’s accomplishments to my own awesomeness. Here is an example: Zippy started sleeping soundly through the night at a few months old. When I heard parents comment that their child didn’t sleep through the night until they were over a year old, I thought, “Holy cannoli, what were they doing? There is no reason a child shouldn’t be sleeping through the night by then!” Then Bee came along. My sweet, darling Bee. My sweet, horrible-sleeper Bee. At nearly two years old, he still wakes up at 4 am every other night. Once in a while, he wakes up crying at midnight. And he has a really hard time getting himself back to sleep. While I know there are some things we’ve done differently with Bee, I have a whole new appreciation for the influence of biology on sleep patterns.
Then there was The Great Bottle Fiasco of 2010. Zippy took a bottle without any trouble. Bee, on the other hand, boycotted the bottle. And I do mean BOYCOTTED. I went back to work when he was 12 weeks old and for a month he would go from 8:30 am until 5:30 pm refusing to drink the milk I had pumped for him. We tried every bottle on the market, droppers, soft-top sippy cups, hard-top sippy cups, sippies with straws. Friends out-of-state mailed me their babies’ favorite bottles. We even tried a turkey baster. (No, I’m not joking!) The sitter tried feeding him in her arms, in the car seat, in the crib. You get the picture. It was miserable. (That guy at a picnic who, when I griped about this to his wife, confidently told me he could get any baby to take a bottle? Well, they hadn’t had their second yet. He was still under the stellar-parenting-delusion.) I finally had to start working from home so I could run to the sitter’s at lunch time to nurse him.
Babies do what they want to do. Bee has a lot in common with his big brother – happy, silly, smart, adorable. But he is his own little person, with his own “wiring” and temperament. I can influence who he becomes but I can’t fundamentally change who he is. Research bears this out. For example, babies show signs of temperament very early on – before the environment has had a chance to have a significant impact – and although that temperament can be altered somewhat, it generally does not change dramatically. So, the environment can help determine whether a wary baby becomes more relaxed or a nervous wreck, but there isn’t much mom and dad can do to turn their slow-to-warm child into a boisterous extrovert. I think appreciating this can really help us as parents – sort of like the mantra of 12 Step Programs to change the things we can, accept the things we can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference. Help our kids be their best selves, whatever that might be for each child.
It’s also become so clear to me how siblings really do not have the same family experience. Sure, in a general sense it is the same. Both my boys are growing up in a two-parent household, living in a middle class neighborhood, with a working mom, enjoying summer beach vacations, etc., etc. But Zippy had three years of life where he was the center of the universe. He had two parents’ undivided attention and he relished in it. As much as he loves being a big brother, he’s tasted life as an “only” and had to adjust to sharing the limelight. For Bee, however, there have always been three stars in his universe – Mommy, Daddy, and Big Brother. He’s doing things so much earlier than Zippy – not only because we were more overprotective as first time parents, but also because he wants to do what his big brother does (like ride a scooter and brush his own teeth). He is much better than Zippy at entertaining himself and playing independently, which I attribute to the fact he’s always had to share our attention.
Then lately I’ve witnessed the effect of siblings on behavior. Zippy was a sensitive, nonviolent little soul when he was Bee’s age. A little rough-housing at daycare, maybe, but nothing significant. Again, I chalked up Zippy’s behavior to our great parenting – no fighting at home, Dora instead of Sponge Bob, loving parents teaching him good coping skills. Then last week Bee started chucking shoes at his brother’s head. Hmmm. To what do we owe this pleasure? In hindsight, Zippy never needed to be aggressive. There was no competition at home. No one playing with the toy he wanted. No one sitting on Mommy’s lap when he wanted a snuggle. Bee, however, is dealing with all these things and has the coping skills of a 22-month-old to deal with them. Hence the shoe-throwing. I still think we’re doing a good job as parents. I’m just learning not everything is 100% under our control and there are a lot of things that influence a child’s behavior.
I guess the lesson in all of this is that our kids are shaped by so many factors. How we parent them is definitely important – I’m in no way saying that it isn’t. But there are also a lot of things out of our control that play a role. I think recognizing those other factors helps to put things into perspective. Now, when I hear a mom say her toddler still isn’t sleeping through the night, I save my judgment and nod sympathetically.