Thursday, October 28, 2010

What's the Difference?

Before having children, I never put that much thought into how variable they are or how those variations might come into existence. Now that we have Pip and Polly, I am constantly amused and fascinated by the differences between them.

The lens that reveals all of this difference is Polly. As the second child in our family, we cannot seen her except in the context of our previous experiences with Pip. She may follow his precedents. She may tack away from them. But she can never exist separately from them. Everything she does necessarily prompts a comparison. Everything she does becomes known to us in part as a similarity to or a difference from what Pip did before.

Our knowledge of Pip is not left unchanged by this comparison either. As Polly has passed through the various stages of childhood, the wake of our memories regarding Pip has gotten disrupted. Basic certainties have become open for re-evaluation. Maybe Pip isn’t that good of a sleeper after all. Maybe Pip’s aptitude for language is more significant than we initially realized. The comparisons that Polly’s life invites have a way of turning statements about Pip into questions.

What does all of this mean for Pip and Polly over the long haul? In light of this question, I thought I’d do a light-hearted birth order comparison for this week’s blog entry. My initial idea was to find some lists of famous (and infamous) first and second born children then extrapolate a series of characteristics from them to make a fanciful projection of Pip and Polly’s respective futures. Google gave me a good start on this by providing a couple of websites dedicated to spelling out correlations between personality traits and birth position, but none of them had the comprehensive or extensive lists of well-known people I was hoping to find.

All the same, these websites did make for fun reading. The consensus that seems to arise from them is that Pip will tend to be more confident, patient, conservative, organized, authoritarian, rank-conscious, defensive, logical, ambitious, and scholarly than his sister. This puts him in the company of US presidents, astronauts, and entrepreneurs (though I wonder if these commonalities are due more to historical inheritance practices that favor the first-born son than on shared personality traits). Polly, on the other hand, will be more creative, adventuresome, rebellious, fair-minded, social, immature, liberal, and unconventional. She will follow the path blazed by a variety of entertainers (again inheritance practices?) and such luminaries as Bill Gates, George Soros, and Fidel Castro.

If I want, I can see a bit of the ascribed qualities in Pip and Polly. Pip is certainly more cautious and interested in the details of how things work than Polly is (right now). And Polly definitely is more willing to dive into a crowd of people she doesn’t know than I imagine Pip will ever be (though he does well in familiar locations). But, the more descriptions I read, the more traits like “sensitivity,” “jealousy,” and “attention-seeking” started to overlap with one another. Taken as a collective, the descriptions I found in these websites read more like the vaguely suggestive characteristics found in a horoscope than the distinctive general traits each individual site would initially lead one to believe. Some of the sites essentially indicate as much by devoting a page to caveats and exceptions. (see here and here) These pages basically say that the birth order traits discussed previously do not mean much because so many variables – like gender, culture, socioeconomic status, etc. - go into constructing an individual’s personality.

None of this vagueness is surprising or unexpected. The ability to take these definitions with a grain of salt is part of the fun. We all know that life is too complicated to assent to easy generalization since every situation can play out in such a wide variety of ways. Will Pip’s two years of single childhood may make him upset with having to share parental attention or will this sharing relieve him of some of the pressure that comes with constant surveillance? Does Polly’s consistent inability to do all the things Pip can do may make her resentful of him or does it challenge her to achieve things she otherwise might not have? Over time I imagine that we will be able to find examples of all these possibilities coming true.

The only thing we can really say for sure is that Pip and Polly will be different. Their lives will not and cannot be the same. This is partially because of their relationship to one another. It is also partially because Ava and I are not the same parents we were when Pip was born. This fact is something that particularly excites and amuses me in my dealings with Polly. In short, the second child presents me with a second chance.

I’ve been thinking about the benefits of a second try a lot recently as Polly approaches the “terrible twos.” When Pip underwent the transition from toddler to kid that kicks in between 18 and 24 months, I was unprepared. I knew about the “terrible twos” and had read about the kinds of physical and emotional changes that would be at work during that period. But psychologically I was not ready. I had really enjoyed being with Pip as a 12 to 18 month old. During that time, he learned to walk. He began to talk. He started playing in lots of new ways. And, most importantly for me, he was so excited about understanding my words that he readily did just about everything I asked of him. As he moved passed the 18 month mark, this excitement began to wear off. Pip began to develop his own set of interests and ideas. He wanted to try out things that I wasn’t crazy about – playing with light switches, climbing on chairs, running around without pants on, et cetera, et cetera. He was no longer willing to drop whatever he was doing in order to take a bath or put on a clean diaper. He also began seeking out ways to delay or avoid doing what I asked of him. While I knew that much of this was a matter of testing out my reactions to all these situations, I didn’t handle them all that well. The cumulative frustration of trying to get him to do what I needed and being unsure about what new strategies to try, what balance of praise and punishment to deploy, and what kind of relationship issues I was creating in the process of just getting through basic household chores really had me tied in knots.

The solution to this was largely a matter of adjusting my approach to Pip. First, I had to accept the reality of his personhood and the fact that he was developing his own agency. This meant working to treat him as a person and not a baby, trying to understand how my instructions would sound from his perspective, and being willing to negotiate and talk through things with him instead of just telling him what to do. It meant learning to say yes to things he wanted to do that I found annoying. It also meant preparing him before a change was coming by giving him a notice a couple of minutes beforehand. Lastly, it meant letting him win some, or at the very least allowing him to do things like sliding off the bed one or two more times before shutting him down. By letting go of my attempts to control everything all the time, I found a way to get through. I still got frustrated but not in the boiling and uncontrollable way I had before.

Polly is now 19 months old, and she has begun to wander off at bedtime. Before when we would tell her that it was time to put on her pajamas, she would happily go to the room she shares with Pip and sit down on the floor. Now, she goes to the bedroom, but consciously stays just beyond my reach for a while, tunneling into a pile of stuffed animals, sneaking around the backside of her crib, or trying to climb up on Pip’s bed. I am able to watch this with a sense of amusement because I know what to expect now. I’m ready for the change and understand that the sudden willfulness and absence of immediate obedience to my instructions are signs that her mind is growing. I also know how important my own reactions are to Polly’s behavior. My goal is to overreact to the positive things and underreact to the negative. I will still draw lines in the sand, but I don’t want to get upset when she crosses them. Instead, I will just quietly and slowly bring her back to try again. My idea is to create consequences without drama, correction without the adrenaline rush of confrontation. This has certainly helped thus far to keep me from getting worked up and hopefully it will do the same for her.

I don’t know exactly what the long-term effects of this will be, but I hope it will make Polly’s experience of the “terrible twos” different from the one we went through with Pip. Maybe it will even be an experience that is enjoyable for us all.

And if not, Polly can talk about all of this when she fulfills the destiny of the second-born child by becoming the host of her own television show.

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