I don’t know about you, but I grew up on stories in which the elder sibling was the wicked one and the younger the good. Always. Sometimes there would be a middle child too in the story, who either was the sidekick of the older child hence wicked too, or would have a change of heart in the course of the story and end up as the good crony of the younger one. But the character of the other two, namely the eldest and the youngest, remained unchanged in story after story after story. The eldest remained the repository of everything undesirable, evil personified while the youngest was the epitome of goodness, an angel in human form. Surprisingly, gender did not matter in this scheme of things. Whether male or female the order of birth was the sole deciding factor.
I particularly remember a story that was told and retold a number of times during my early childhood. In case you haven’t heard it, let me narrate it for you.
Once upon a time in a far away land lived a King and a Queen and their three Princesses. The older two had only one hair each on their respective heads. The youngest happened to have two.
Now, the elder siblings were jealous of that one extra hair on the youngest princess’ head. They begged their parents to please pull out the extra hair, but they did not oblige. So Princesses 1 and 2 hatched a plot, took Princess 3 along on a picnic and conveniently *lost* her in the dense forest that bordered their father’s kingdom.
Wandering hungry and miserable in the forest, Princess 3 came upon an old woman struggling under the weight of a huge bundle of firewood. Putting aside her own misery she spoke kindly to the old woman and offered help. The old woman, who was not really an old woman but a ‘good’ witch, was impressed and showered Princess 3 with gifts. And in addition, as soon as she stepped inside the palace (Surprise, surprise!), her head grew rich luxurious hair so long that it nudged the floor.
When the Princess 3 reached the palace, her parents the King and Queen cried tears of joy. The pair of elder sisters were sullen at this turn of events but pretended otherwise. Everyone wanted to know about the full head of oh-so-glorious hair. The good-hearted one that she was, Princess 3 revealed all, which wasn’t much anyway. An old woman in the forest had made all this possible.
That easy to get a crowning glory?! Princesses 1 and 2 clamored to be allowed to go to the forest and soon were on their way in the luxury of their horse-driven chariot, accompanied by servile attendants. They were dropped at the edge of the forest and the accompanying party returned to report to the King and Queen.
The princesses waited and waited for the old woman to turn up. Hunger gnawed their insides, the heat and dust made them cranky so much so that by the time the old woman staggered into view, weighed down by the heavy bundle of firewood, they snapped at her crossly.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Give us our gifts and let’s be on our way. This forest sucks. Not the place for us royal princesses. Gah!”
The old woman said nothing. She laboriously slipped the bundle off her back with no help from the princesses. From between the firewood, as if by magic, she took out gifts wrapped in brightly colored paper. The princesses were eager to know when their hair would grow as thick as their sister’s. That would happen only when they stepped into the palace, their home, the old woman informed them.
The Princesses snatched the gifts off her hand without even a ‘thank you’ and left in a hurry. When they reached the palace they rushed to their parents’ room.
“Mother, Father, look! We met the old woman, got our gifts and have a head full of hair too!”
But the parents and sisters only stared at them sadly and shed tears, this time of sorrow. The princesses were completely bald. They had lost even that one hair which had adorned their bald pate. As for the brightly wrapped gifts, they turned out to be pebbles, not gems. The bad elder sisters had been taught a lesson. But the loving youngest one, the forgiving angel that she was, embraced them both and said she would always love them.
The other stories were no different from this one. At times, they had in them princes instead of princesses. Yet other times the protagonists were not royalty, just commoners, a woodcutter’s children or those of a trader. What remained unchanged was, you guessed it, the evil nature of the oldest child and the angelic nature of the youngest.
Now imagine being an elder child and hearing such stories throughout your impressionable young years. And while the story is being told noticing the other children fidgeting in their seats giving you curious and surreptitious (sometimes not so surreptitious) glances, a half smile on their faces, as if YOU were indeed that evil eldest one and they the wronged and eternally good angels. What was worse was when the stories came from the mouth of insensitive adults who threw mocking (everything is *innocent* fun for the unfeeling and thoughtless, especially when they are not the ones at the receiving end) glances at the eldest child in the crowd of listening children, thereby endorsing and validating the feelings of superiority of the younger lot.
In case you are unfortunately the eldest child in such a group, in spite of having done no one any harm, you start feeling the burden of guilt weigh upon you. I am evil until proven otherwise. The irony is that the certificate of goodness, that is if you wish to have one, has to be issued by those who start off believing you are inherently bad and also those others who couldn’t care less about you either way. Is it any wonder then that all such stories were completely eschewed from my list for my children? (I have similar issues with stories about ‘evil’ stepmothers. How about giving the poor woman and children a chance to live a normal life?!).
The other day I was reading one of those unsubstantiated “studies” shared by someone or other on Facebook. It said the eldest children were more intelligent than the younger children. In our region, the saying goes the other way, that the eldest children are stupid. The truth is that children, whether older or younger, fall in between these two extremes depending on various factors, some in your control and some out of it. Stereotyping is the bane of humans. Not just the eldest or youngest child, men, women, fathers, mothers, grandparents, daughters, sons… and more, they are all stereotyped. Foolish humans forget that we are all individuals and start believing their own stereotyping as absolute and unchangeable truth. More’s the pity.
©Shail Mohan 2016