The Problem-Solving Parent: Why Second-Born Children Play the Catch-Up Game
By Eleanor Reynolds Children and Families Expert

Why Second-Born Children Play the Catch-Up Game

Tammy lets out a scream, crumbles into tears, and, filled with rage and determination, places the pieces of the game back into the box and puts it away. Losing to Theo is not an option for Tammy - if she can’t win, she won’t play.

Sibling rivalry usually occurs when the first-born child feels “dethroned” by the second born and the first born determines the second child to be a tag-along pest, as in TV’s “Arthur.” In the series, Arthur is smart, sensitive, and a bit stodgy, but his little sister, D.W., is crafty, competitive, and wildly imaginative. Her goal in life is to catch up with Arthur, overtake him, and become her parents’ favorite child.

This pattern is common in second children with variations based on age and sex. It is as if the second child pops out of the womb, looks up at the older sibling, and says, “O.K., what must I do to come out on top?” The second born studies the older child’s strengths, weaknesses, and parental relationship, then creates his own role in the family. To get the attention he needs, he will most likely assume an identity that is distinct from his older sibling. In The New Birth Order Book, Leman states, “The second-born child will be the opposite of the first born, particularly if they are less than five years apart and of the same sex.” Theo and Tammy are almost five years apart; they are not the same sex, yet they are in many ways exact opposites.

Behavior may be inherited or learned, but we know that children are born with their temperament in place. Parents begin treating their second child just like the first, fully expecting another easy-going, relatively compliant child. They are often shocked and bewildered by their scrappy, explosive, and competitive second child. The combination of inborn temperament and being second born can be volatile. First-born children have a reputation for being perfectionists, yet many second-born children are perfectionists as well. Being “perfect” is one way to compete with a more powerful brother or sister.

Unlike the older sibling, the second child must fight for everything: your time and attention, recognition as a unique individual, fair and equal treatment, and ownership of space, toys, and achievements. The first child automatically takes these for granted because she has had no reason to fight or to compete for anything. She is adult-oriented and accustomed to instant praise for her smallest effort. She repays you with affection, is sensitive to your needs, and feels a sense of responsibility to you. This is a hard act for a second child to follow! 

You can help your children get through those challenging early years by spending alone time with each child. The amount of alone time is not so important; fifteen minutes a day may be enough. What matters is that you tell each child that this is his special time with you without interruption and other siblings, and he will decide how to spend the time. Use this time to nurture each child’s uniqueness. Alternate to give each child time with each parent.                

In addition, never compare your children to one another or let others compare them. Treat each one fairly, but according to his individual needs. Older children should have a few extra privileges, even if the younger ones protest. Encourage children to talk out their problems, but prohibit hostile teasing. Provide each child with a reasonable amount of privacy and ownership of possessions. Supply each one with a closet, box, or shelf to put toys that are off limits to other kids. Instead of demanding that they “share,” teach them how to trade, take turns, and negotiate for toys.  

Siblings will always bicker and squabble. Trust their inner resources and let them solve their own problems as much as possible. As they discover their own strengths, they will have less need to compete over you.


Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers. For more information, please call 206-789-7643 or visit her website at Reynolds is also the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach.