Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Oldest Sibling to Parent

MrsDarwin and I got married at 22 and had our first child at 23. We were both oldest children. At the time that our eldest daughter was born, MrsDarwin's youngest sibling was 9 and my youngest sibling was 17.

Like a lot of oldest siblings, I'd always felt like I had a pretty good idea how my younger siblings should be raised. "You're not the parent, and if you'd stop trying to be the parent and let me deal with your siblings, then they'd be getting in trouble instead of you," was something I had to get told a lot. Thus, with memories of babysitting younger siblings not long ago, and a conviction that I had always known how to be the parent anyway, I slipped very easily into actually being a parent.

In some ways, bringing this babysitting mentality to parenting made it easy for us. Compared to a lot of new parents we knew, we were very flexible. We took our children everywhere and didn't allow ourselves to be tied down much by routine. You'd never hear us saying, "Oh, we couldn't make it then. That's nap time." We just dragged the kids along to whatever we were doing and were pretty good at convincing them to be moderately well behaved once we got there. Either by luck or because we conditioned them into it, our children were all pretty flexible as well. Since we seldom stuck to a routine other than "tamping the chaos down", they didn't have the sort of "someone has deviated from routine" fits that some kids did.

When you're the babysitter you don't have to build routine. You just have to keep destruction under control until the parents get back. At a certain point (to be honest, I think not till 5-6 years in) it started to occur to me that I wasn't parenting as if I was on an 18-year-long babysitting gig. I was used to being around kids, correcting misbehavior, cleaning up, keeping people entertained, etc., but as an oldest sibling and babysitter, it hadn't been my job to actually set routines that we followed day in and day out. Indeed, I'd ignore any such routines if it made the job of keeping the wheels on until the parents got back easier. The problem was: there were no other parents to come back.

Another aspect of the older sibling mentality that I think I carried over for a long time into parenting (indeed, one which I still find it hard to shake) is that while an older sibling or babysitter may enforce order, they don't get the sort of respect-for-the-office that I grew up associating with parenting. Prior to being a parent, I'd exercised (or tried to exercise) authority on a "if you don't stay in line, you'll be in trouble" basis. If people were rude or talked back, I'd respond with a rebuke or retort, but as an older sibling it never occurs to one to say, "That's no way to speak to your older brother," and so it never really occurred to me to take that line in relation to being a parent.

This dawned on me one day when one of the girls was grousing about being told to do something. I was on the point of responding with a matter of fact, "Too bad. We all have to do work," when my father-in-law (who happened to be visiting) looked gravely at the offender and said, "That is no way to speak to your father. You need to speak to your parent with respect." I was gratified, but oddly shocked. Many was the time as a loudmouthed kid (there's never any question as to where the kids get it from) that I'd been scolded for talking back to my mother in almost those same words by mother or father. The thing is, while I had often rebuked the children for being rude, it had never occurred to me to insist that they treat me with greater respect that other people. I simply wasn't used to thinking of myself as "a parent" and thus due any filial devotion.

I'm sure that everyone has certain difficulties over the years adjusting to being a parent. The kids, luckily, probably miss most of these since they don't have any other frame of reference for "what fathers are like" than me. I think the reason these in particular struck me is because they related to ways in which I thought I adjusted very easily to being a parent, and only much later came to realize that I had not fully done so.


Jenny said...

My husband and I are both oldest children and I joke around that our oldest daughter, as the oldest child of two oldest children, is DOOMED! That's partly a joke and partly recognizing the OCD inherent in every oldest child.

As the oldest I was expected to babysit a bit, but I can't say I took it very seriously. If the youngers wanted to kill each other, well leave me out of it.

As Grace enters the back-talking stage (oh joy), I find myself telling her how she will not be rude to her parents, but I feel oddly disconnected from the label.

For my first mother's day, I was driving and worrying about what to do because my mom wanted us at her house and my husband's mom wanted us at her house and there are only so many hours in the day and no matter what we did, there would be upsetness. And then the thought dawned on me. I'm a mother too now! How odd.

Literacy-chic said...

I totally relate to the oldest-sibling-babysitting-mentality. BUT--I have always demanded more respect. I'm having a *harder* time with that now that my oldest is in high school, because I remember all to well what it's like to be in high school. I have a very hard time telling him to stick to the rules, do the homework, get off the computer/ipod--and making him listen. I reign in the smart-alek comments when they go too far or are disrespectful, but perhaps not enough. It does help that he's a good kid. But BOY does he have the sibling-as-parent syndrome!! Any tips for how to knock that out of him? I don't think I'll *ever* get to that "real parent" setting schedules & such stage. Even *with* a full-time job.

Elizabeth said...

This is so interesting to me as an oldest child (though not yet a parent). I definitely had (still have?) the sibling-as-parent syndrome, which I think was somewhat exacerbated by having babysitters at least 3 days a week during childhood. I always took it upon myself to be unofficially "in charge" while my mom and dad were gone. If I have my own children someday I wonder what I will be like?

bearing said...

I think it is a lot easier to insist on treating parents with respect when Dad insists that the kids treat Mom with respect and Mom insists that the kids treat Dad with respect. Otherwise, you spend all your time modeling "being aggrieved."

I try to remember, too, what it was like to be a kid and to have the intention behind my tone of voice misunderstood (happened to me all the time; my mother was always telling me "It isn't what you say, it's how you say it" and I Could. Not. Figure. Out. What. She. Meant. So I do a lot of "Child, if you raise your voice to adults like that they are going to think that you mean disrespect. Please don't talk to me that way."

Jenny said...


I think I just had a flashback. My mother said that to me ad nauseum. I too couldn't figure out what she was talking about.

bearing said...

Yes, it really stinks to say something that seems perfectly normal and have adults inexplicably fly into a rage about your "tone of voice." Sometimes I was trying to copy things I'd read in children's dialogue from books, or seen on TV accompanied by a laugh track. I couldn't understand why it was funny on TV but made adults furious in real life.

I try to be very explicit about it when I remember. "Son, if you raise your eyes to the ceiling when you say 'Okay Mom,' it gives the impression that you're exasperated with me and you want to make sure I know it. Try to suppress that, because it tends to make adults angry." A mix of that kind of thing and the out-and-out "Don't talk to your mother that way" is what I manage.

Sarah said...

This is fascinating to me because technically my twin sister and I were the "oldest" together. "Firstborns". In reading this, I can see how being part of a twin pair drastically changes the experience of being the in the oldest slot. I don't think I ever really "parented" my younger sister. I have a little boy now, and I am busy trying to figure out how to raise a boy (I only had sisters) - and a singleton boy at that, so parenting feels like totally new territory compared to my upbringing! In fact, I feel bad for him; who the hec is he going to play with? Just 6 weeks post-partum, I was wanting to give the little guy a sibling... I apparently have no concept of spacing because my sister and I were born minutes apart, haha. Anyway, suffice it to say, this was an enlightening read, especially since my hubby is also the oldest but a singleton (no wonder he seems to find parenting "natural").

bearing said...

Sarah, the twin: "Just 6 weeks post-partum, I was wanting to give the little guy a sibling... I apparently have no concept of spacing because my sister and I were born minutes apart, haha."

That is an absolutely fascinating bit of perspective. At 6 weeks postpartum, I am usually still saying "I am never doing that again" (It goes away eventually, but not that fast.)

kharking said...

I'm the oldest but apparently my siblings are close enough in age to me that it didn't really translate into knowing how to take care of a baby or really parent one either. Thank goodness for all of my friends who had kids in the couple of years before I did. The one thing that I see that works differently between me and my husband (who was the youngest and in many ways a functionally only child) is that it came more naturally to me to consider everyone's needs as at least as important as my own. Even now with #3 just a couple of months away, it is still a bit weird to fully try to understand that I am to my kids what my mom was to me.