When my elder daughter was born, my mother gave me a pamphlet that she had handed out to families when she worked as a health visitor. It is called “The Position of the Child in the Family and its Significance”. I still have it. It was written by the Principal Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health and published first in October and November 1956.
The pamphlet sets out the likely character of children in various positions in the family – the only child, the eldest child, the second child, and the youngest child – and is supposedly based on the writings of Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychologist whose reach extends far beyond his research into sibling positions.
My mother had one older brother whom she had resented as a child for storing up his war-time sweet ration and then eating it in front of her. Her parents were servants in a big country house: her mother was the housekeeper and her father the chauffeur – the most responsible positions, but still servants. When the war came, such large mansions could no longer be kept up, nor the staff retained to look after them. The lead was stripped from the rooves and the servants had to find jobs elsewhere. After the war the family moved to Wolverhampton where they bought a small guest house.
Both my mother and her brother passed the 11-plus exam and so went to grammar school. But my mother was made to leave school at sixteen by her parents, and watched as her no-more-intelligent-brother went to Cambridge University and left with a PhD in Chemistry and several patents to his name. He married a biologist and lived in the same town as us when we grew up, except they had a beautiful house on the most expensive and desirable road, with five acres of garden, a stream, chickens and geese and a swimming pool, an aristocratic dog, and Bang & Olufsen hi-fi and vermouth before lunch. My uncle finished his career as the Warden of the most prestigious livery hall in London. And he still reads the Guardian. I like him a great deal.
I am the elder of two sisters. My daughter, the cause of the delivery of this pamphlet, turned out to occupy the same position.
I have often re-read the pamplet, and wondered why my mother gave it to me, for the description of the eldest or elder child is not flattering. The “dethroned child” is apparently prone to showing signs and symptoms of jealousy, is likely to be petulant, and to wet the bed. Later on he will endeavour always to assert his fancied superiority over his younger siblings.
“Deep down in his mind he looks backward to the past when he enjoyed everyone’s undivided attention. He has learnt not to like changes; to hold his own, he “bosses” and thus gradually develops into the conservative authoritarian who believes in the supremacy of the good old-days …”
The author continues that some year ago he had met a “melancholy person who moaned and bleated about these modern times, who maintained that children were not so good as he was in childhood, and who possessed a bleak outlook for the future of mankind” and, to boot, hadn’t spoken to his family for years. The author knew nothing of the man’s history but observed to him “I think I am right in saying that you are an eldest child” and then observes, triumphantly to us, the readers, “He was!”.
It gets worse as the Principal Medical Officer gets into his flow, for later on he writes:
“Whenever you meet a stupid, rigid and unbending authoritarian in the home, the school, the hospital, or anywhere else, you may be reasonably well assured that you are dealing with an eldest child. Not always, of course, but with amazing frequency… never let it be forgotten that the majority of problem children are eldest children“.
The italics are the author’s own …
Alfred Adler was somewhat more measured. He said that (because of the dethronement)
“oldest children generally show, in one way or another, an interest in the past. They like to look back and to speak of the past. They are admirers of the past and pessimistic over the future. Sometimes a child who has lost his power, the small kingdom he ruled, understands better than others the importance of power and authority. When he grows up he likes to take part in the exercise of authority and he exaggerates the importance of rules and law. Everything should be done by rule and no rule should ever be changed … We can understand that influences like these in childhood give a strong tendency towards conservatism. If such an individual establishes a good position for himself, he is always suspicious that other people are coming up behind him with the intention of taking his place from him and dethroning him.”
Adler was influenced by Nietzsche, by his determination that the “will to power” is the only real motivation that an individual has. My own experience (having thought about a great deal) is not that I lost power – how much power does a small child have – but that I lost love. When my sister was born the smiles were turned on someone else. If she wanted to fight me for power, I was not interested in the fight since power is not what I wanted. I wonder if the older child is not right to be looking over his or her shoulder. Simplistically, I think we each wanted what we felt we lacked. Love or Power.
Gender, I think, determines the particular shape of the sibling rivalry. An older brother is unlikely to be seriously challenged in the power stakes by a younger sister, and is likely to win the mother’s love stakes. An enviable position. An older sister is likely to cede any power to a younger brother and to have to watch as he is adored by his mother in a way that she never will be. It is in same-sex sibling relationships that the full horror of the battle is most commonly played out. Thus the Bible tells us the story of Cain and Able where Cain is eaten up and driven to murder by the thought that Able is loved more by God, and the story of the Prodigal Son confirms that the elder’s responsible, pleasing inclination is little match for the affection unconditionally afforded the younger child.
What power I have – my own power – I will hang onto for dear life, and I am generally resistant to others having control over me, and despise those who seek to assert themselves over others, but I have no desire to control others and, typically, respond to any attempt to control me by distancing and opting out. I can be persuaded to do things, but not made to do them. It is kindness that will win me over, not coercion. To that limited extent, I think Nietzsche was right. My own will to power over myself is everything. But all I really want is love.