Last night, I was watching America's Supernanny. She had been called in to help a family with 10 children. TEN! And, mom was pregnant with twins. To say those parents felt overwhelmed is a complete understatement.
During the observation, among the other behaviors and patterns she noticed was one that really bothered her. The oldest son, 14, was practically raising the baby in the family. He was also trying to herd the other kids, get good grades in school, participate in extracurricular activities, prepare food for the family, do his chores, not to mention figure out who the heck he wants to be in this life.
I found as I watched the events unfold, that I had some pretty strong feelings about the situation.
Now, I'm all for helping out the family. I think chores are mandatory; without allowance as motivation. I think that the older kids should be willing to assist the younger children. If an older child sees a young child struggling, he or she should be eager to help. If mom needs some extra hands for a minute, kids should be happy to lend those hands. I think that teaching children how to care for others is perhaps one of the most important lessons they will learn. And the skills will be absolutely necessary when they are adults and parents themselves.
But, I think it's very easy to take it too far.
The parents made the decision to bring the baby into the world. Sure, they are busy and tired. They feel wrung out. But, the baby is THEIR responsibility. Not the oldest child, or next oldest, or who ever is available to take over.
The parents lived their childhood. I think it's a crime to rob that from an oldest sibling because the parent feels inadequate. The oldest child is in the midst of becoming a PERSON. They are saddled with enough responsibility without having to raise a child they didn't even choose to bear.
I think it creates expectations that no child can ever truly meet. Inevitably, the caregiver will end up feeling like they have let their parents down. No youth is fully equipped mentally and emotionally to properly meet all of the baby or toddler's needs. They physically can't do the things that are necessary to give comprehensive care to a baby. They don't have the coping skills yet, either. And, if by accident, something does go wrong, the older sibling will forever feel guilty. It won't be a matter of consequence because of her poor choice, it will be a consequence because of the parent's poor choice.
Eventually, this type of relationship always seems to breed resentment in the older child. I've never heard someone say, "I helped all. the. time. with my siblings. I took care of them most of the time. I'm really grateful I put aside my own opportunities and time to raise the baby." I have heard, however, a lot of adults who were shouldering more than they should have as kids say, "I never got to be a kid. I raised my brothers and sisters. I never got my time." Siblings should be allowed to be siblings. Just as man and wife shouldn't operate in a parent/child relationship, neither should an older sibling be forced to have a parent/child relationship with a younger sibling.
Childhood is fleeting. And while learning to work as a family unit, serve selflessly, give help willingly, and sacrifice for the good of the group are so important, I think almost nothing is as important as preserving childhood for our kids. They are being asked younger and younger to show adult behavior. They are expected to speak foreign languages, play sports, read music, give service, sit still, listen perfectly, keep their rooms clean, and all manner of other things at age 5 these days.
Those kids don't need to come home and know they are gonna start the second shift. If it's so hard for mom and dad to do the work, imagine how it is for the kid! To help the parents understand the burden their teenage son was feeling, the father donned a backpack and for each responsibility the son had, a 10 pound weight was added to the bag. By the time all of the things the son was trying to accomplish had been added, the father literally fell to the ground. He couldn't carry the weight.
As with all things in life, balance is key. Each family is individual. Each child is individual. Withholding opportunities for children to serve is just as damaging as over burdening a child. Some times, a kid will have to help out more than others. But, I think there is danger is consistently asking a child to do the work that a parent should be doing. The parent shoulders the responsibility of being the primary caregiver. The parent shoulders the responsibility for making the changes necessary to fit it all in and to make it all work. The parent shoulders the responsibility of preserving childhood.