Sitcom Situations

How To Be the Guinea Pig Child

There are three main levels to the sibling dynamic. Level one: the youngest child. In this level, you are the “baby” of the family. You are pelted with gifts from your over-sympathetic parents as they slowly come to terms with the fact that you are the last human being they will ever raise (which, in turn, sparks their dramatic mid-life crisis as they discover that they are officially old so just be prepared to receive the brunt of that blame). Level two: the middle child. You’re old, but not old enough. Young, but not the youngest. In terms of labels, you’re more of a “terrible toddler” than the “baby”, or one of the two pots of porridge that Goldilocks eats before she finds the one that is “just right”.  You’re never the first, never the last and as a result, you end up feeling like the middle ball in Newton’s Cradle that never really does anything.

And finally, level three: the eldest child. You’re the designated role model, a close-to-home celebrity whose every move is closely watched by those that follow you. One wrong move and you’ll end up in the tabloids (or, in this case, the family newsletter).

I have another name for this stage, though, one that I think is entirely more accurate: the guinea pig child.

First-born children enter the world as clean slates for new parents. Here you are, a freshly minted baby void of life experiences and embarrassing middle school memories.  And then there’s your Mom and Dad, who only a second before were just Bill and Sue, and who now begin to panic about their new-found responsibilities. “How strict should we be? How much TV should they watch? Should we teach them about Santa? How will we tell them where babies come from?” You are an experiment, subject to your parents’ “fake-it-til-you-make-it” beginnings and whether you like it or not, your experiences are the ones that will shape the lives of your younger siblings.

For awhile, I was a bit bitter about the whole ordeal because if you didn’t already know, being a human guinea pig isn’t all that fun. In fact, the only thing being a human guinea pig is particularly good for is turning every life experience into something you would find in an awkward television sitcom. Take my first day of Kindergarten, for example. At the ripe ol’ age of 6, my mother put me on the school bus with my 5th grade neighbor (after taking 3 disposable cameras worth of pictures) and sent me on my way. I followed my mini-tour guide to her 5th grade classroom where she bid me farewell and left me standing in the empty hallway. After wandering the school for a good 30 minutes, a rogue teacher found me and led me in the right direction just before I found a closet big enough for me to sit down and panic in.

Rewind back to my very first birthday party, where my parents discovered that having someone dress up as Elmo was not appropriate for a one-year-old and would initiate a 2-hour tear fest filled with shrieking, hiding and throwing things. My younger brother never had to experience being chased by a giant fuzzy monster because I had already involuntarily made that sacrifice for him. (And I never even got a “thank you” for doing so.)

Fast forward again to freshman year of high school, when my mom bought me a ticket to see my uncle in California and I walked onto the plane alone and straight into a layover in Texas filled with big signs that I couldn’t see (I was also the first child to inherit bad vision) and accents I didn’t recognize. I had been tossed into a life that had been less planned out than one of those spontaneous, poorly constructed plans that you make with your best friend every other weekend and I was utterly unprepared for it.

But then again, sometimes those are the best kinds of plans. As a guinea pig child, you can make your own footsteps rather than follow the ones of the sibling that came before. You can learn to do things the hard way because you have no excuse not to. You can jump off cushion towers or eat buckets of candy before your parents realize that those things are not okay. You can struggle through high school, opening all the hidden back doors so that your siblings don’t have to. But most of all, you can collect life experiences that no one else can, experiences labeled with the guinea pig stamp of approval that only you can provide.

Image via Shutterstock

  • Lex Tonelli

    LOL!! Great article Ty!!! You are soooo right! :-) not to mention, the oldest is saddled with all the picture taking of every life event, and the middle child, not so many! (I, being the youngest, hardly have any childhood pictures compared to my brothers!) All in all, your brother had a great mentor! :-) Learning to be independent is also a good perk to being the oldest!! :-)

  • Canada Taylor

    I think if these are the challenges parts of being a guinea pig child, you had an exceptional and perhaps privileged childhood. Often older children can’t blaze their own path because parents expect them to have a certain career path and care for them in their elder years, while younger children get a more permissive parenting style. However, there are so many cultural differences in child rearing that any generalization becomes difficult. However, I still found this article fun.

  • Samantha Mann

    I agree with all of the above, although I had the opposite experience – instead of my parents making mistakes (e.g., big scary monster for a 1-year-old bday, not planning a solo trip better perhaps), they over-parented in that my life was more controlled and regimented. I don’t mean this in a bad way necessarily, just that I was an only child until 9 years old who was taught to be obedient and well-mannered and couldn’t get away with any bad behavior. Then my siblings come along and they got away with (what felt like) MURDER. Oh my gosh, my inner child still gets upset when I think of the BS my baby brother pulled and my dad literally excused it all away with “He’s the baby”, “He’s a boy”, and “You’re the oldest, you’re supposed to know better”. OLDEST CHILD RAAAAAAGE.

  • Chris Martinez

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  • Chris Martinez

    LOL love this article. I’m a middle kid so I’m constantly feeling ignored YET constantly smug that I can get away with anything as no one notices. 😉

  • Charlotte Steggall

    Hello from another guinea pig child! My parents were so strict with me… at 16 they marched me off to get a part time job. My 16 year old sister gets to relax at the weekends now and take ballet classes and so on. SO UNFAIR!

  • Tanisha Love Ramirez

    Yup, I’m the eldest of my parents’ children and their first major experiment was naming me…Seriously. Look at my name! See it? Yup, that’s my real name! I’ve grown to love it, but as a child and teenager, it was not too fun dealing with racist relatives (“Ay, you’re not black! Why did they give you such a black name!”) to dealing with not-so-funny classmates (“did you parents, like, hate you?” or “You’re copying Jennifer Love Hewitt!”). As an adult, I embrace my AWESOME name, but it should be noted that my younger siblings all have names that appear in Top 100 babyname lists.

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