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MAN & CHILD: Her brother’s keeper

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Except for telling which shoe is right and which is left, my 19-month-old son Kyle has hit every developmental milestone earlier than his sister Jinaki, who is two years older than him.

This has been a surprise to me. From the moment my wife found out she was carrying a boy, I girded myself to be bored with the new baby for at least two years. It wasn’t just that the second child would lack the fascination of novelty, but that boys typically lag behind girls, especially in respect to verbal development. So I fully expected to wait two years before Kyle even said his first phrase.

Instead, he is already on full sentences, ranging from “I want Daddy to come on the bed” to “I locked Aunty Jean out.” Yes, personal pronouns, past tenses included. Naturally, people are astonished when they find out that Kyle isn’t even two years old yet, and they invariably say that he speaks so well because he’s the second child and has learned to talk from his sister (who, if you ask her what kind of girl she is, will answer, “I am loquacious.”)

This makes intuitive sense, but it isn’t entirely true. If younger children did indeed have a learning advantage because they can mimic their older siblings, then IQ scores should be higher among later-born children than first-born ones. In fact, the opposite is generally the case. With respect to verbal ability, children do not start to speak in sentences until they have acquired a minimum number of words—put another way, a child must know enough words before he can start stringing them together.

Kyle’s first word was spoken at nine months and, ten months later, his vocabulary includes terms like “crumbs” and “door stopper.” But if he did not have a certain cognitive capacity to start with, he would neither have absorbed Jinaki’s words nor been able to repeat them.

However, younger siblings do develop faster than older ones in at least one respect—understanding that other people have minds.

Anyone who has children knows that, until the age of five or so, they think that everyone thinks like them (although this is also true of many grown-ups). But having an older sibling seems to catalyse children’s understanding that other people may have different viewpoints and, more importantly, that catering to those differences may be necessary, especially if you want your bigger sister to let you play with her toys or, for that matter, your own toys.

In her book The Scientist in the Crib, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik writes, “Parents egocentrically think that they are the deciding factors in their children’s lives. But for a two-year-old, an older brother or sister may be a more enthralling example of human nature.”

This may be why younger children have better temperaments than older ones, on average. Gopnik adds, “Younger siblings tend to be more charming and socially skilful, if less ambitious and domineering, than older siblings.”

This is certainly true for Kyle but, in my totally unbiased fatherly opinion, it has less to do with his being a second child than with him just being a sweet boy.


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