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Oldest and Youngest Child

Alexander R. Martin

[In this lecture, the speaker talks about the impact that birth order may have on the development of neurosis, with particular attention to the situation of being the oldest or youngest child in a family. The author is unnamed but is inferred to be Alexander Reid Martin, based on multiple references to a lecture entitled “The Oldest and the Youngest Child” in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, for example in a reference to the lecture in the bibliography to an article by Jack L. Rubins, “On the Early Development of the Self: Its Role in Neurosis,” p. 136. Topics in Martin’s lecture include:

« Discussion of neurotic character structures in children. Likelihood of these problems may increase based on the child's position in the family.

Higher risk produced when, for example, there are 5 daughters and boy in the position as the youngest child, or an only child.

Focus of episode are the oldest and youngest child. First "trial" for parents, test of the motivations of the marriage and pregnancy. This child overcomes the challenges and clear the way for younger children. Father may be jealous of this first child. Mother's demands upon herself for the first child are higher and lessen with subsequent children.

High expectations of first child. First child most likely to be exploited. First child experiences unique type of displacement not experienced by other children.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection » (quotations from - AKS]

Oldest and Youngest Child

NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, December 12, 1949

What we call the nature of the child is still apt to be regarded as entirely inborn or inherited, though more and more evidence tends to show that the most potent factors in forming basic character patterns are the first interpersonal relationships of the growing child. The purpose of my talk is to focus your attention on the powerful influence of family relationships in forming character and determining those human qualities known as “temperament” and “disposition.” Now medicine, and particularly, public health medicine, has made headway in determining and specifying and prescribing the physical factors essential for healthy growth. But it typifies the materialistic nature of our culture that no such progress has been made with those more intangible but equally real factors — the intra-familial and parental attitudes which are also necessary for healthy growth.

All of us are agreed as to the importance to the child of love, warmth, kindness, affection, patience, and dependability in family life. But little scientific effort has been made to determine how these human essentials can be provided. Because medicine, and psychiatry, continue to be more concerned with disease prevention than with health promotion, we can more easily describe what is harmful to growth than what is beneficial. Now I will follow a certain negative approach, and concern myself with the harmful rather than the beneficial influences deriving from a child’s position in the family. There would, of course, be beneficial aspects as well, and the consideration of them would be the positive complement to the material given here.

Now, all children have problems in their family relationships, simply because children and parents are human — we do not hope for intrafamilial conditions without problems. Our concern — yours and mine — is to recognize what is bad for the child’s growth, so that we may prevent extreme instances of such harmfulness. We can think of the conditions prevailing in the climate — let’s call it — the climate of the home. If harmful parental attitudes are present, and helpful attitudes absent, the climate will be severe. And it is then that we will have, as a result, serious deviations in the child’s pattern of living.

Urgent problems make the child more compulsive and indiscriminate in his choice of solutions, and invariably produce more extreme behavior. Those who work with children may inadvertently increase a child’s difficulties and perpetuate any unfortunate patterns, originally formed in the home, unless they become sensitized to the attitudes on the part of adults which tend to create severe problems for the child. A former colleague of mine, the late Dr. James Plant of Newark, posed an important question: what are the eighteen or twenty fundamental problems of our children? Now, we can say, neglect, deprivation, rejection, overprotection, possessive love, over-solicitation, erratic discipline, male or female preference, favoritism, sibling rivalry.

Now, this is quite an arbitrary selection. It represents an attempt to name attitudes that you and I will agree are harmful to growth. No one of these difficulties ever exists alone, and we have all of us been subjected to them to some extent. The presence of these harmful attitudes differs in degree, more than in kind, as we move from one family to another, or from one racial group to another, or from one economic level to another. It is only through their intensity and overlapping that serious problems are created.

Now, of course, the child is not aware that his parents create problems for him. His efforts to cope with them are mainly unconscious. When parental attitudes are bad enough, they force the child to resort to all manner of solution. He tries ways out of his difficulties which are mutually incompatible, and which may or may not be socially acceptable. Now, in time, these conflicting strategies are unconsciously self-perpetuated, and operate in spite of the child, and whether he is faced with real problems or not. This is, in general, what we mean when we say that “he is compulsive and indiscriminate.” His habitual pattern becomes a compromise between various conflicting tendencies. It is in this way that neurotic character structures are formed.

Now, one factor that increases the likelihood of certain problems is the child’s position in the family. In some family constellations, the stage is set for one kind of family drama; other arrangements set the stage for a totally different interplay of human attitudes and emotions. These various family situations provide either a low risk, a moderate, or a high risk to the individuals involved. In some — let’s say “settings” — we are justified in expecting a tragic development, and serious deviations from the norm. An obviously high risk is produced, for instance, when the family presents a picture of father, mother, five girls and one youngest boy. Or, four boys and one girl. Or, several grown-up children, then a lapse of twelve or thirteen years, and then another child. Now, the only child also presents a good illustration of the formative influence of parental attitudes. And there is general agreement that the triangular drama of the only child and his parents holds greater possibility for tragedy than for healthy growth.

Now, I think this may be a good place to remark on the so-called “Oedipus” situation, or “Oedipus complex.” More and more evidence is showing that excessive attachment to a parent of the opposite sex is not instinctive. It’s not something natural that grows out of a child’s real affection for a parent, nor a parent’s real affection for a child. All attachment to a parent intense enough to justify the term “Oedipus complex” is to be understood as caused by excessive anxiety, due fundamentally to a severe home climate — an absence of the attitudes essential to growth, or the presence of hostility, or both.

Now, though the possibilities for danger in the settings mentioned above may seem quite obvious to you, yet most people do not see them — so very widespread is our adherence to a materialistic philosophy. Nevertheless, people are perhaps a little better aware of the dangers of these eccentric situations than of the less dramatic settings represented by position in the family. I am focusing my attention today on the oldest and youngest children, because I feel that the children in these positions are very likely to be overlooked. We should, all of us, become sensitized towards them, and particularly toward the oldest — the oldest child.

Now, many factors operate that exist only for the first-born. He is, as it were, the first experimental object for parental education and adjustment — the means of proving the basic philosophy of father and mother. Depending on their philosophy, he can become a source of satisfaction, or dissatisfaction; of reassurance, or of anxiety. The parents’ capacity for giving has its first test. It is their first experience in dealing with something helpless of their own, and all their hidden feelings relative to helplessness are activated. Many neurotic people have difficulty in really loving anything helpless. Then, again, the unconscious motives for marriage, for becoming pregnant and having a child, are also brought to the surface. When the motive for having a child is other than constructive — when, for example, it is due to insecurity, or to satisfy the need for someone dependent, or to prove potency or prowess — then the child must satisfy these hidden cravings. He becomes the focus of many neurotic trends and serves as a kind of vehicle whereby the father or mother attempts to resolve inner conflicts. Insofar as the attempt succeds, the first child relieves the situation, more or less, for the children who follow.

Now, certainly, during the actual physical process of birth, the first child meets with the greatest resistances, pressures, moldings, and demands. And, in overcoming these obstacles, he makes the way easier for his brothers and sisters. And there is certainly an analogous situation in his post-natal experience. Hidden conflicts in the parents regarding masculine and feminine, hidden standards, patterns, philosophies, are activated by the first child, regardless of its sex, and produce certain parental attitudes towards it that do not operate towards succeeding children. The three-cornered relationship takes up, to a certain extent, what may be described as the parents’ neurotic slack, and tends to immobilize — even resolve — certain of their neurotic attitudes and feelings. Then, hidden neurotic jealousies are most likely to be aroused by the advent of a first child, if the marriage has occurred on the basis of insecurity. And where, for instance, there exists the influence of a combination of possessive wife and dependent husband, the father will show open jealousy of the child, or more hidden reactions equally harmful to it.

Much tension surrounds the first child; the mother is usually more perfectionistic — she is systematic, strict, and much less flexible in her habit-training. She shows her ambition to be in perfect health and produce a perfect child. With the second baby, her demands upon herself and the child are apt to relax. So, in general, the problem most likely to confront the first child is what we could call “exploitation.” He is the one who will be the victim of excessive parental demands and expectations. The greatest hopes and ambitions are attached to him. If the oldest child is a male, the whole tendency towards exploitation is strengthened, especially among racial groups having marked masculine preference, or in families with a very successful father, or in well-known families dominated by high traditions. Later children, can, of course, also be exploited, but it is generally done with much less intensity. Then, the oldest child has another problem that is peculiarly his, and indeed exclusively his. He experiences a unique kind of displacement — displacement when the second child is born. Later children invariably know their parents as people to be shared with others.

Now, the tremendous formative influence of this displacement seems to be constantly overlooked. There is no way of sparing the first child this difficulty. It is something he has to face; but because it is so widely ignored, it is made unnecessarily serious. This problem can be greatly emphasized and complicated when exploitive parents use the displacement as an occasion for increasing their excessive demands and expectations towards this older child. As soon as a second baby comes, some parents exert greater pressure on the older child to “act his age,” be grown-up. They express complete intolerance for his natural immaturity. Then, very soon, the older child learns to feel that unless he meets these demands, he cannot gain approval. He tends to relinquish his natural immaturity, his natural play and emotional expression, and to develop instead a pseudo-grown-up exterior.

Before the birth of the second child, the elder at least received brute care — that is, it received, like any young, growing thing, warmth, nourishment, and support. But, after the second birth, the situation often changes to one in which brute care ceases, unless excessive parental demands are met. The child inevitably feels that all recognition, interest, affection, love, are exclusively conditional — something must be done to earn them. He must excel, comply, be brave, be grown-up, et cetera, in order to be loved.

Then the seriousness of displacement is also increased when it occurs to a child who has had some degree of over-protection, over-solicitation, and pampering when he was the only one. The sudden shift from over-protection to expectation creates acute problems for any child — which calls for for very urgent solution. When insensitive parents, doctors, and nurses ignore and aggravate the problem of displacement by clumsy handling, the widest varieties of symptoms can result, such as bedwetting, sleep-walking, stammering, temper tantrums, convulsions, stealing, fabrications, aggressiveness, unusual shyness, sudden cruelty to animals, and reading and writing backward in school. The child’s symptoms disappear when the adults concerned are made aware of what they are doing and give the child the sympathy and care he needs, successfully to weather the displacement crisis.

In many respects, however, the child who develops such obtrusive symptoms is really fortunate, for symptoms are, after all, a dramatic danger signal, and help attract attention to something wrong in the climate of the home. Far more unfortunate is the child who develops the subtler character changes which can be completely and permanently overlooked — changes which may appear to be socially acceptable and even commendable, but which are actually the beginning of an undesirable pattern adopted by the child in his effort to cope with the problem of displacement. The child becomes serious, prematurely grown-up, and all too ready to accept responsibility. Now, I do not speak now of the precocious smart-aleck child, but of the child who is a little old man before his time. He becomes a great help to his parents, looks after younger children, giving up much of his play life and childhood in the process. And so little do people realize the cause of such a development that they say of him, “Well, he’s just naturally a serious boy,” or, “It’s his nature to be that way,” or, “He has no sense of humor.”

This last remark becomes, in time, an accurate, a very accurate description — for these older children who have been subjected to exploitation, and of whom much is expected, do finally tend to look on any emotion, and certainly on all expressions of emotion such as loud laughing or crying, as something they have grown out of. They feel, also, a great intolerance for whatever emphasizes youth — youthful ideas, innovations and changes of all sorts. They tend to be conservative. And then they give the general impression of being in a hurry to grow up. They are markedly intelletual, literal-minded, conscientious, meticulous. Very early, they begin to derive considerable gratification from having others dependent on them — particularly their younger brothers and sisters. By this means, they gain security. And unconsciously and inadvertently, they perpetuate dependence and weakness in others. People of this type who become leaders find it difficult to share leadership. Around them will gravitate those who are compliant, dependent, and obsequious. Because so much is expected of them — these oldest children — they may become afraid to initiate anything, through a dread of making mistakes. They dare not let themselves go. They are extremely sensitive to ridicule, and they develop a contempt towards the beginnings of early stages of everything — a contempt which is part of their intolerance of immaturity. The picture they present, in general, is that of a compulsively materialistic, practical philosophy toward life — a need for schedule, ritual, and routine living, and an urgent stringency in dealing with money matters.

Now, if I were to describe the character type of these exploited older children in Freudian terminology, I would say they have a severe superego development, and strong repressions of the id. As a result of excessive demands, the oldest child may develop a kind of unconscious strategy for discouraging the expectations of his family. When he succeeds in dashing his family hopes and ambitions for him, so that implicit demands cease and all pressure is removed, and everyone has given up hope of his ever accomplishing anything, then he may spring a great surprise and accomplish something out of the ordinary. He does well when losing, or when expected to lose, and when he is not in the limelight. As an athlete, he is very often the type who will, as we say, “tighten in the clinches.” So the personality traits that we have been describing are the result of exploitation. And they are given here in relation to the oldest child because he is apt to be exploited. Exploitation in itself is a form of rejection — rejection of the child — but specifically, it is a rejection of immaturity, and of the inchoate, unformed child.

Now, in contrast to the oldest child, the youngest is most likely to meet with the problem of overprotection. He is often referred to as the “baby,” and a great deal of babying does occur. But we should give our most careful attention to this process called “babying.” By the time the youngest child arrives, many of the parents’ conflicts, unconscious motivations, and high standards of expectation and excessive demands of the children have been more or less dissipated. The earlier children have to a great extent borne the shock of parental inexperience, and the parents are prepared to show much greater leniency towards this latest arrival. In complete contrast to the oldest child, very little is expected of the youngest, and parents and siblings often remark that he “gets away with murder.” His older brothers and sisters usually resent the greater tolerance and leniency shown him. Sometimes they vent their resentment on him directly, though generally when the parents aren’t around. Or they may express a desire to dominate very subtly, by overprotection of the youngest. They fight his battles for him, do more and more things for him, and so successfully prevent him from acting for himself that he becomes increasingly dependent on them. Perhaps not all of his siblings will take such an attitude, but there is very apt to be at least one among them who gains a great deal of satisfaction out of the dependency of the youngest, and will unconsciously foster and perpetuate it. This is part of the process known as “spoiling” — spoiling the child. Again, in complete contrast to the oldest child, the youngest does not experience displacement of any kind. He is the only one in the family who escapes the experience entirely.

Another type of problem, which is often more serious for the youngest child than for the others, is that of rivalry with older siblings. He may come to feel that he can win love, affection, and recognition only if he equals or resembles one of his older brothers or sisters. This conviction, and the inequality of the competition can lead to an early withdrawal from all rivalry, and refusal to grow up. He is often afraid to grow up. He then retains immaturity as an asset — parades it, and tries to use it to dominate others. Over-protection of the youngest can result in crippling feelings of weakness and inadequacy, and in a constantly growing tendency to resort to immaturity as a means for controlling situations. Younger children may even retain an immature physique, an infantile makeup. They very often are sexually undeveloped, the girls menstruate late, and the boys are slow in showing male characteristics. They are apt to be much less conscientious than the oldest child, and more spontaneous and voluble and impulsive. Now, at the period of adolescence, many of these youngest children may show a seeming rebellion against the overprotection and dependence. “You’ve treated me like a baby,” they seem to say, “well, I’ll show you, I’m not a baby!” — Then, a wide variety of behavior patterns can result — all, apparently, motivated by the desire to prove strength, independence, and an adult status. But the independence is illusory, for underlying the defiance, a strong dependence persists. It’s just as if they remained all the time in the parental lap, but they showed periodic defiance by kicking the parent in the stomach. Youngest children are usually capable of close relationships and identify with the young growing things around them. They love animals; they revel in immaturity, and show none of the oldest child’s shame of it. They express their feelings readily; they are also apt to be more spontaneous, imaginative, idealistic, but they are impractical, and inconsiderate of others.

Now, again, if I can resort to Freudian terminology, they have a less rigid superego than the oldest child, and greater expression of id impulses. In simpler terms, the youngest child is really much more free in self-expression, and his deficiency is on the side of control and regulation. In dealing with the youngest — especially one who has brilliant siblings — parents should constantly ask themselves, “How is this child trying to compete, to dominate, to control?” Because, as I mentioned above, the youngest learns very readily, very early, the value of helplessness as a means of dominating the household, and uses this means either openly or indirectly. If the older siblings on whom the youngest is especially dependent are girls, he may develop a need to belittle women, to humiliate and frustrate and tease them. Where the older siblings are boys, the need will be to humiliate men, and make them feel ridiculous. Some very protected youngest male children who have been dependent on older brothers tend to withdraw from competition with men, and they become the type ofen referred to as “sissies.” Because of early dependency, these youngest children retain considerable weakness and fear of growing up. They remain, we say, at a perceptual level, and are unaware of any strength in themselves. They may resort to a fundamentalist type of philosophy, and they have to look always to an agency outside of themselves to protect and care for them, and then, towards whom they can be both compliant and defiant.

Now, sometimes, the extremely free self-expression fo youngest children brings with it great creative imagination. But they remain so unrealistic and impractical throughout life that this productive genius can be realized only within the framework of a very special relationship with someone else — someone like an indulgent, long-suffering, and possessive parent, who will tolerate their Olympian originality and their reactive defiance and compliance. Such a relationship resembles that already mentioned, in which an older child — the oldest — gains its only feeling of security and adequacy by unconsciously fostering dependency in the youngest.

It often happens that much of great value created in these neurotic unions is aborted or still-born, unless a third party intervenes. He must be — that is, this third party — must be someone whose emotional security limits his neurotic involvement, and gives him enough objectivity and judgment to evaluate the unrealized potentialities of such a neurotic partnership. Only with his help can the brain-children of this partnership be delivered to the world with some hope of survival. Such third parties are to be found among those specializing in public relations, and among the promoters, sponsors, and angels of the artistic and literary world. But what I want specially to emphasize here is that this is a partnership that is sponsored, and not individuals. There are third parties whose interference is destructive, and who either unconsciously exploit the partnership, or fail to realize its full, creative possibilities. The ideal third party would be the prototype of the Homo dei that’s mentioned by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain — that is, one who is truly integrated, and therefore, above counterpositions, as Mann puts it, and whose function figuratively combines that of obstetrician, wet nurse, and foster parent. He realizes that it would be impossible for him to break up certain neurotic partnerships which are potentially creative. And his aim is not primarily therapeutic, but it’s an attempt to save what is valuable for mankind from an otherwise unproductive human relationship.

Now, in conclusion, I want to say that no one realizes more fully than I how very little of this whole subject has been presented here in this very brief talk. What I’ve tried to do is to give you a glimpse, just a glimpse, of a small part of the unconscious aspect of human relationships — a realm in which only those who are sensitized can hope to play a helpful role in the creation and perpetuation of a better society. I’ve made many generalizations, but they are tentative. At this point in our knowledge, it is prefereable to refrain from establishing or promoting theories. Whether you and I agree or disagree as to the potential advantages or disadvantages of this or that position in the family, that’s unimportant. What is important is that you and I are considering, discussing, agreeing, and disagreeing about the most significant phenomenon in human life — that is, the formative interplay of human relationships.