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Older Siblings Helping With Baby: How Much Is Too Much?

My 15 year old daughter, J snuggling her baby sister, G

I am the mother of five children, ranging in age from seven months old to teenagers.  In addition to our own kids, our big, old house often contains extra kids, in the form of friends and cousins.  No, we’re not quite “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” but my husband Jon and I are definitely outnumbered, and sometimes we need all hands on deck – and that means kids, too.

The household in which I grew up was similar in some fundamental ways to the one in which my own kids are growing up. Though my mother only birthed three kids  - me, plus my little sister and brother – we also had cousins who were as close to us as siblings, and who spent a lot of time at our house – as we did at theirs.  Combined with the friends one or another of us often had staying the weekend, there were always a lot of kids around, and my parents liked it that way, just like I do now.

My kids with cousins at Edisto Island. My oldest holding my youngest.

One of the most powerful messages my parents imparted to us when we were children is that family comes first. We were raised to see our family as a clan, and my father in particular continually reminded us kids as strongly as possible that we were expected to always, always watch out for and take care of our siblings and cousins – during childhood and beyond. We might squabble or disagree at home, but our parents and grandparents raised us to believe that it was very bad form to take those disagreements outside of the family. We were raised to have each other’s backs, and we do.

Part of the “sticking together” ethos with which I was raised involved a clear expectation that the older kids in the family had some inherent, ongoing reponsibility for the younger kids. Every day of my childhood and adolescence, I heard some variation of, “Be sure to keep a good eye on your little sister while you are out in the yard playing,” or “Remember, your cousin is your responsibility this afternoon. Make sure he has fun and don’t let him fall out of the hayloft,” or, “Oh, you’re going to a movie with your friends tonight? Why don’t you take your little brother with you. You know he’d love that!”

 

E, age 12, helping out with Baby G on a recent family road trip.

The message of responsibility for each other stuck. Now that we are grown, my siblings and cousins and I may sometimes get on each others’ nerves, but we are always there for one another, through good times and bad. We regularly convene for family events, weekends and vacations, and a day rarely goes by when I don’t communicate with my brother, sister or cousins. The husbands and wives who have married into my generation of our family probably didn’t realize what they were getting into, but they all seem to enjoy being part of  Clan Us.

Given the way I was raised, it’s not surprising that I also want and expect my children to see their own siblings and cousins as their closest friends and allies, as well as their responsibilities. As a mother, I try to imbue my children with an understanding that being in our family means being part of something bigger and potentially more meaningful than any one of us is likely to be all by ourselves.  I trust that the relationships and sense of responsibility that my children develop for their siblings and cousins during childhood and adolescence will protect and nurture them long after I am gone, and that’s comforting to me.

Four of my five kids with a gaggle of the cousins, summer '10

My belief in the power and importance of family ties within each generation is the primary reason why I absolutely do expect my older children to help care for their younger siblings and cousins. In our family, the bigger kids are required to play with, entertain, watch out for, and sometimes outright babysit the younger ones. My brother, sister and cousins are raising their children with the same expectations. And note the words “expect” and “required.”  This hands-on help and interaction with the younger kids isn’t optional. It’s part of the fabric of how this family operates.

In addition to my belief that asking the older kids to help out with the younger ones will build strong family ties, I will also admit that I expect the kids to help out as a matter of convenience. Sometimes I need one of the older children to pitch in and help care for one of the younger ones so that I can finish cooking a meal, get the laundry started, or finish work that I didn’t get done at my office that day. That’s just the way it is around our house, and even my older kids’ friends know that when they are spending time here, they are likely to end up with a baby plopped down in their laps when an extra set of hands is needed.

My daughter J (far left) and two of her best friends snuggling newborn Baby G in the hospital

This all seems quite normal and natural to me and my kids, but more and more, I seem to be encountering the opinion that it’s somehow wrong or damaging or even abusive to expect the older kids in a family to take on some designated responsibility for the younger ones. I started hearing and reading negative comments about this around the time the infamous Duggar family hit the pop culture scene a few years ago, via their TLC reality show. Unless you have been living under a rock lately, you are likely aware that Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are the fundamentalist Christian parents of NINETEEN  children. Obviously, the Duggars are interesting to viewers simply by virtue of their remarkable biological feat.

However, their fans also admire the way they are raising what appear to be 19 well-adjusted, healthy, competent, polite, self-assured kids in a household far more organized and well-run than many homes with only one or two children. If you have ever watched the show, or read an interview with Michelle Duggar, you know that all of the Duggar kids are expected to help with younger siblings on a regular basis. Michelle has dubbed this approach in her family, “the buddy system.”

Obviously, the Duggars are an extreme example of, well, just about anything related to family life, and this “buddy system” that they employ is no exception. By giving it a name and demonstrating it in action on TV every week, this mega-family has drawn attention to something that, as I’ve already explained, my own family has long considered both normal and beneficial.

But not everyone agrees with me on this. Just about any time the Duggar family is discussed online, their critics point to this expectation that the older kids will help out regularly with the littler ones as being an intrinsically negative thing.  The fact that the toddlers in the family sometimes seek out comfort from one of their older siblings is sometimes offered as evidence that it’s the older girls who are “parenting” the youngest siblings, instead of their mother. But my younger children and the younger cousins in our family often turn to a big brother, sister or cousin for a hug and a kiss, or to help them get back up when they fall, or to lie down with them at bedtime and read stories. I have never seen this as evidence that I am not doing my job as their mother, but instead as lovely validation that my children love each other, have relationships with one another, and that the younger ones look up to the older kids as people who are available to give them comfort and support. How is this possibly a bad thing?

E and his youngest sibling, G having a chat

So how about you? What kind of message did your parents give you about your responsibilities toward your siblings and cousins, and how did their approach play out in your family? Were you close to your siblings as kids? Are you close as adults? Did you help to care for the other kids in your family? What about with your own children? Do you (or will you when you have more kids) expect the older children to help with the younger ones? Talk about this hot topic in the comments below.

NOTE: Some of you may remember that I’ve blogged about this topic previously, but I wanted to revisit it today because it seems to be something I’m hearing discussed a lot more lately, among my friends and online. I hope you won’t mind me circling back to discuss this a second time. I guess I just had more I wanted to say!  Thanks – Katie


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