On Being the Youngest

I have come to see a special ability that becomes available to many who grow up being the youngest of several siblings. It’s the capacity for observation, which is cultivated as a result of their being relegated to the category of “less competent.” Although often regarded fondly,this same affection can attribute the ignorance of innocence to the youngest sibling.

We don’t choose the family we’re born into or our place in the birth order. But we can learn from reflecting on it.

We don’t choose the family we’re born into or our place in the birth order. But we can learn from reflecting on it.

What is she to do? Marginalized and not taken seriously as a participant in dinner-table talk, she can observe. In the early years, she may regard the judgments of others that she has no qualifications to participate as legitimate. But if this is accompanied by curiosity and a civil and stimulating environment, at the table, she may learn patience and special skills of observation and listening.

Furthermore, under these circumstances she may come to reflect upon what she sees and hears, and to notice the tendencies of others. Although a downside of being youngest could be acquiring a sense that one is not competent, capable, or worthy, there can be upsides. These accrue to the youngest in families whose members love and respect one another, emotionally safe environments.

I know, you may be thinking “How could you say they love and respect one another if they treat the youngest in ways that cause her to feel less capable?” My short answer: Any child, regardless of where they stand in the birth order, will be short-changed in some way. Family dynamics are imperfect as are parents. And asymmetries of power always exist, no matter how subtle. We all leave childhood with work to do.

However, in a generally healthy family (loving, caring, mutually respectful), each member will in time mature and claim their right to speak and be heard. It’s the unique advantage of the youngest, however, that they’ve often acquired the capacity to observe, patience to listen, and the knowledge that some talk without thinking and become found out. With maturity, this may bolster their prudential wisdom.

So, there are certain inheritances from our childhood that may seem purely negative. We may regret them, see them only as disadvantages. But if we simply accept them as a part of our life experience and seek to understand how they’ve caused us to learn different lessons, we may discover that there is value to be found in what may have otherwise been seen as a limitation or barrier to growth.

Who were you in your family of origin? How were your included, engaged, or involved? What parts of that experience have felt like barriers? How might your experience positioned you to learn something different from your siblings? Make this life experience open and available for your inspection. Know that now you are free to consciously use this experience for your further self-understanding and growth.

And if there is trauma is in your past, a family system that was unhealthy and dysfunctional, know that you can still also learn and grow from processing this experience. There may be pain and needs for expert help in that case. But the help, if provided well, will provide you with the emotional safety you didn’t have earlier in life, and that will enable you too to learn and grow, and also to let go.