Are second children neglected?
From hand-steamed veggies to first days at school, it’s all so much more traumatic with the first child, says Tracey Hawthorne.
A group of women were sitting around my table the other night, discussing our kids, who range in age from 6 to 20. The conversation about how we handled our first children as opposed to our second was particularly revealing.

‘I grew, harvested and steamed every vegetable that went into my first child’s mouth,’ one of the women said.

‘I used cloth nappies for my first child – and hand-washed each one,’ said another.

‘When my first baby’s dummy fell on the floor, I’d sterilise it before giving it back to him,’ said the third.

‘My first child didn’t taste salt or processed sugar until she was two years old,’ said the fourth.

And the second children?

‘Bottled baby food!’

‘Disposable nappies!’

‘Pick it up, wipe it off and stick it back!’

‘Biltong and Ouma rusks – anything to keep her happy!’

Carefully caring for firstborns

Another element that three of the four of us had in common was mainly contented first children who were easy to please, and seriously demanding second ones who robbed us of sleep and patience, and in all three cases so tested the limits of our maternal abilities that we stopped at two.

We could perhaps have drawn a causal link between the careful nurturing given to our first children and the slapdash mothering the seconds had to endure, were it not for the exception of the fourth woman: her first child was a hellboy, but her second and third were little angels.

For most mothers, our first children are our testing grounds – we make many more ‘mistakes’ with them: too-hot bottles, too-lumpy food, too-rigid feeding routines, erratic bedtimes, that kind of thing. By the time we have our second children we’ve learnt a bit, both about our own limits and what our babies actually need to remain healthy and thriving.

And so it goes on through life: our first children go to preschool first, and it’s rare the mother who doesn’t remember the awful trauma of her heartbroken littlie screaming for her to come back as she callously left him for the day; the anguish of our second children also hurt us, but we knew by then that the preschool teacher was probably right, and that as soon as we were out of sight, the yelling would stop.

Our first kids go to big school first, and negotiate the sometimes frightening world of rules and regulations, other children, homework and project deadlines, and athletic competition. Our second children enter big school having observed, for a year or more, their elder sibling’s behaviour, and so at least know more or less what to expect.

First teen, second teen

During teenagehood, the first-child-as-testing-ground syndrome remains intact: our first child usually encounters romance first, sits his learner’s and/or driver’s first, gets a holiday job first, perhaps spends an extended time away from home first; and we try out various negotiations and disciplines on those first children first, working out what works for teens: confiscating cellphones, grounding, banning TV or restricting time at the computer.

Admittedly, by this time, what works for the first child doesn’t necessarily work for the second, but at least we have some ‘practice’ with the first one before the second one steamrollers into adolescence.

And I’m seeing it now, too, with my first child having failed his first year at university and my second child going into hers: she and I have learnt a lot from my son’s unsuccessful year. She’s found shared accommodation (rather than a flat on her own); her finances are a lot more organised; and she’s in no doubt that if she doesn’t work really hard, she won’t pass.

So it comes down to swings and roundabouts: sure, we may over-nurture our first children and drag up our second ones by the bootstraps; but by the same token, our first children have the often unenviable task of leading the way for their younger siblings.

How differently have you raised your second child to the first?

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