Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

What Parents Learn from Experience: The First Child as a First Draft?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

What Parents Learn from Experience: The First Child as a First Draft?

Article excerpt

This study sought evidence for the proposition that experiences with earlier-born adolescents will improve parents' interactions with and parenting of later-born adolescents. Participants were mothers, fathers, and both first- and second-born siblings from 392 families participating in a longitudinal study. To collect information on siblings' family experiences, family members were interviewed individually in their homes. During the subsequent 2 to 3 weeks, 7 evening telephone interviews were also conducted, which focused on siblings' daily activities. Findings suggest that when parent-adolescent relationships were measured at the same age for both siblings, parents experienced less conflict with their second-born as compared with their firstborn adolescent offspring and exhibited greater knowledge of their second-born offspring's daily activities as compared with their firstborns' daily experiences. These results are consistent with the notion that parents may learn from, their childrearing experiences.

Key Words: adolescents, birth order, family systems, parenting, siblings, within-family designs.

Common wisdom about parenthood suggests that mothers and fathers may develop more effective childrearing strategies through practice. If parents do improve their skills through practice, then generally speaking, they might be more competent in their dealings with later-born as compared with firstborn offspring. Indeed, studies of birth order differences in personal qualities and dispositions often attribute differences between first- and later-born children to parents' level of experience and comfort in the parental role (Eisenman, 1992; Sputa & Paulson, 1995). In the face of such common sense assumptions, however, very little empirical evidence speaks to the question of whether and under what conditions parents might learn from their childrearing experiences, especially in the case of parents with offspring in middle childhood and adolescence.

A body of empirical literature on the transition to parenthood highlights the challenges involved in caring for a firstborn child (for reviews see Belsky, 1984; Heinicke, 1995). In contrast, only a few studies have examined parent-child relationships in the years following a second child's birth, and these tend to focus on how the demands of caring for second-born children alter parents' interactions with firstborns (e.g., Belsky, Gilstrap, & Rovine, 1984; Dunn & Kendrick, 1980; Dunn & Munn, 1985; Kreppner, Paulsen, & Schuetze, 1982; for a review see Kreppner, 1988). Whether parents are more effective or competent in caring for later-born children, however, remains unknown.

The lack of attention to parents' adjustment to later-born offspring probably is grounded in a common sense assumption that experience makes a difference, and that no transition is likely to be as challenging as the first. Indeed, one reason why parents' experiences with later-born children might be less stressful than their experiences with firstborns is that parents learn from experience. From changing diapers in infancy to learning the script for the first day of school in childhood to understanding acceptable parental behavior vis-a-vis the first date in adolescence, thoughtful parents can make use of their earlier experiences when they face similar situations with later-born offspring. As a result, having more experience and comfort in the parenting role might provide for more effective parenting and more harmonious parent-child relationships.

The goal of this study was to test the proposition that experience with earlier-born adolescents will improve parents' interactions with and parenting of later-born adolescents. Specifically, we assessed differences between the parent-adolescent relationship experiences of first- versus second-born adolescents in two domains: (a) the frequency of parent-adolescent conflict, and (b) parents' knowledge of their offspring's daily activities and behaviors. …

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