Should Older Children Be Responsible For Their Younger Siblings?
Does Sibling Responsibility Create Sibling Rivalry?
A parenting issue that I see repeatedly in various forums is the question of how much should we expect out of older siblings when it comes to caring for their younger brothers and sisters. It seems that people tend to have very strong feelings about this issue one way or another, which could only be born of their own childhood experiences. So the question is: As parents, should we expect our older children to help care for their younger siblings?
The answer is YES.
And the answer is NO
We are, in western cultures, no longer an agriculture based society. Therefore, the historical traditions regarding parents hunting and gathering food while the children cared for one another no longer apply. We have moved on to a more sophisticated way of living but we sometimes forget to replace in the context of modern culture, those lessons that in the past actually taught children a sense of responsibility to family, community, and self.
So what do I mean by YES?
By willingly entering into family life, however one chooses to go about it, you are taking on a certain amount of responsibility. And while the traditional family formula is no longer the same social imperative that used to condemn some women to lives of misery, "family" is still a cornerstone of our culture. You cannot teach children the difficult subtleties of family responsibility by raising them with NONE of those responsibilities. So what is appropriate and what isn't?
The little stuff means a lot.
The introduction of a younger sibling can be traumatic. Notice I said "CAN be" not "WILL be". It doesn't have to be a painful transition. Parents need to accept the fact that when they took on a family they had a responsibility to trade in their "it's all about me card". When you have children you have accepted responsibility for the physical and emotional well being of another human being, so it's time to think about your actions. Toddlers love to "help" with new babies so let them. Allow them to feel needed. Tell them you need their help choosing an outfit for the baby, or wiping the drool off of the baby or what ever you're comfortable with. Small children tend to become hostile toward a new sibling when they feel replaced. As a parent, instead of making them feel replaced, make them feel as if they are participating--that you are all in it together. As they grow, those simple things can become slightly more difficult chores--all within the framework of working together as a family.
As my older children reached their teenage years, there were times that we required them to be responsible for their younger sibling. Yes, we made them babysit and no, we didn't pay them for it. Why? It is my belief that one of the most crucial life lessons that society is now failing to instill in it's youth is that, as adults, as human beings there are things we are responsible for JUST BECAUSE WE ARE. Young people too often expect to be compensated, either monetarily or otherwise, and then praised enthusiastically for everything they do that isn't of direct benefit to their personal agenda. We are raising a "what's in it for me?" generation and that lesson starts at home. We also applied this no compensation theory to doing chores and getting good grades. We didn't pay our children for those things because they were simply personal responsibilities. End of story.
So what do I mean by NO?
It's impossible to address appropriate sibling responsibility without acknowledging that there are many parents out there who, by their own actions, create an atmosphere of hostility among their children. Did we require our older children to babysit on occasion? Absolutely. Did we place the consistent burden of childcare on them? Absolutely not. Was there the occasion when we asked them to pick up their younger sibling from school or drop her off at a friend's house? Yes. Did we ever make them sacrifice their own activities and friendships in order to care for their sibling? No. We were always aware of the "in it together" philosophy and that applied to the youngest and oldest equally.
So how did it turn out for us? Beautifully. My children are family focused yet independent and they are best friends in spite of the age gap.