Staying One Step Ahead of the Second Child

Originally published in "The Clarion News" November 1999

Next year at this time my youngest daughter, Cassandre (or as she's fondly known in the family, Cassie Lou Who), will almost be
16. She figured this out the other day while I drove her to work or
cheerleading practice or a football game or maybe WalMart. I can’t remember. I
just drive.

“Isn’t that exciting!” she said. “Then I can drive myself
everywhere!”

She was born 20 months after her sister and ever since she’s
been playing catch-up, always wanting to be her sister’s age.

When she was eight she wanted to be 10. At 11 she was
convinced her life would begin at 13. Now, at 14, the magic age is 16 – the age
to drive, date, and plan her life at 18.

I can understand her feeling she has an inherent right to
the same timetable as her sister. As small children I did lump them together as
a group rather than seeing them as individuals of differing ages.

She stopped taking naps and gave up Barbies the same time as
her sister, and started listening to (and stopped listening to) New Kids On the
Block when her sister did.

But age became an issue when it was time for the big stuff
like staying up a half-hour later, putting on fingernail polish by herself,
riding in the front seat, shaving her legs, wearing makeup, getting her ears
pierced a second time and dating. She had to wait.

“Wait?” she exclaims each time her sister gets a new
privilege. “That’s not fair!”

“Those are the rules,” I explain.

“Well, when can I?”

“When you are your sister’s age.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes,” I always sigh. “I promise.”

Parents, learn this lesson well: Never promise a child
anything hoping she will forget. She won’t. And if you do promise something,
make sure you write it down. Verbatim. Have it certified. Sign it in blood. Or
you’ll be matching wits and memories with a kid who knows exactly when you made
a promise exactly as you said it years before while you were making
Thanksgiving dinner for 30 people or on the phone with the Internal Revenue
Service and would say anything to get her out of the kitchen.

This lesson applies mostly to the second child. With a first
child, parents are fledglings and rarely promise anything because they have no
idea what they’re doing. For example, if your oldest child asks to stay up a
half-hour later you might say something like “I’ll think about it,” and then
run to the bookshelf for advice as soon as she’s out of the room.

I’m going to let you in on a secret the books never tell
you: When you render your decision about the first child’s request, your second
child is taking it all in, memorizing the date, the time, the exact age of the
first child (to the day) and the place you were standing when you said, “Yes,
you may stay up a half-hour later tonight.”

Be prepared when your second child comes to you, detailed
charts and analysis in hand, at exactly the same time in her life and asks to
stay up a half-hour later. If you have forgotten when you allowed the first
child the same privilege you will have no defense. God help you if you say no.

If these second-born children could apply these awesome
memorization and organizational skills to their education, they’d all be rocket
scientists, brain surgeons or concert pianists. However, being adamant about
being right is usually reserved only for fairness (as they perceive it) in
family matters.

Being driven to memorize their spelling words or the
periodic table is not in the same league as showing up their mother or older
sister.

Being second doesn’t always mean having to wait or being
vigilant for injustices or wearing hand-me-downs, though. It does have its
advantages. My youngest makes mental notes every time her sister and I have a
difference of opinion and some kind of punishment is handed down. With this
advanced knowledge she rarely repeats the mistakes of her sister.

Where she doesn’t avoid punishment (or at least a dirty
look) is when she reminds me of mine.

The second child is almost always compared to the older
child, especially if they’re the same gender. But second children rarely walk
the path tread by their older sibling. My oldest is a bit reserved, a little
shy, and it is my youngest who makes the most noise in our world, the one who
will not be ignored, the one who will try the things her sister won’t. She is
the child my mother couldn’t wait for me to have – the one who was just like
me.

And I wouldn’t have her any other way. Her smile lights up a
room. She can tune into a person’s emotional frequency just by looking at their
face. She’ll be anything she wants to someday because she is brave and honest
and can look the truth in the eye and not run away.

Yeah, so she wants to be older. Who, at 14, didn’t? If the
years have taught me anything it’s that our desire to be older than we are
stops at about 25, the age auto insurance rates (and some body parts) start to
drop.

Besides, when she’s 25 I’ll be 45 wishing I was 35. Thank
God for my grandmother who used to tell me that one day we’ll all be happy to
be any age.

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