When your first-born child is your self-appointed 2IC, from Dr Judith Locke

Do you have a bossy first-born, who sees themselves as your deputy in the family? Dr Judith Locke explains why the role of constant helper isn't always great for your child.

Back when I was teaching, nearly each class I taught had one or two extremely helpful children in them. These students would volunteer to hand out papers to each class member, or have their hand up first to go to the office to get a new whiteboard pen.

In my experience, these children had acquired skills of responsibility. They tended to seek such tasks to show their abilities at every chance. I used to joke that they were the ‘voluntary deputies’ offering themselves to be my unofficial personal assistants. And with teaching being so busy, it was great to have children willing to assist in the mundane classroom jobs.

We see these types of people everywhere, particularly families. Often the first-born children must take on more responsibilities to help with younger siblings. Parents might ask them to assist more, such as get the nappies, cut up their sister’s toast, or hold their brother’s hand as they walk through the shopping centre.

And the more these children take on these tasks, the more they cultivate their reputation as being dependable. This further strengthens their maturity. I’m pretty sure that a lot of my classroom deputies were first-born children too.

Unfortunately, the role of constant helper is not always a great one for the child. By taking on more responsibility, they are prone to worry more about making sure everyone is okay. They can easily start thinking that their parents’ burdens are theirs too.

Encourage responsible skills in all your children

But the problem of allowing a child to assume more responsibility is not just an issue for them. It can also end up being challenging for the people around them. That’s because they can easily start to think they’re not just helping, but they are actually second in command (or a 2IC).

For those of you who had an older sibling, you might remember them sometimes being a little bossy on occasion, and often telling you want to do. They might have even shared a tattletale or two to your parents about your minor infringements.

Even in the classroom, I noticed that some of the more helpful children were offering their 2IC services to me as a subtle attempt to get a little more power and control. A few might have tried to come and snitch on their classmates for swearing, or pull me aside to say one student was eating lollies.

Clinically, I find that, sometimes, parents report similar issues of bossy or controlling traits in their first born. This may stem from the increased accountabilities of the eldest child. Some parents report that their first born tries to tell the parents what to do, as the child has assumed they’ve got the final word on what is and isn’t right in the household.

I don’t think that it’s possible to have more than one child and not have your firstborn help more. But I think it’s important that you continue to bring out responsible skills in all your children, and not give those opportunities to only one child.

Try not to say things like ‘What would I do without you?’ or similar. That’s because it suggests that you are overly reliant on their assistance. They might feel encumbered by responsibility and not able to just be a kid.

Never share your feelings about another family member to your child conspiratorially, as it might encourage them to think they are a 2IC. And never reward them for being a tattletale or controlling, unless they are genuinely helping that person through their actions. It’s best to ignore any tales that resemble a Succession-style power move. 

Takeaway tips for parents

Stop them being a tattletale with these ideas:

  • Explain the difference between the two types of information. Telling an adult is to help the person, or the person being potentially hurt. A tattletale is to get someone in trouble.
  • Ask them why they are telling you something. If they can’t show how they are helping another, then it is a tattletale.
  • Be praising of their stories designed to help. Be disinterested in their snitching.
  • Never allow them to order you around, as if they are the authority. You probably need to give them a few more instructions if they are instructing you.

© Judith Locke

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About Judith

Dr Judith Locke is a Clinical Psychologist and child wellbeing specialist who presents sessions for parents and teachers at schools around Australia and internationally. For more of Judith’s work read her parenting books, The Bonsai Child or The Bonsai Student. The Bonsai Child is also available in Mandarin. You can also follow her Facebook page Confident and Capable.