Saturday, January 9, 2010

Family as Priority

A popular nugget of conventional wisdom is that older children shouldn't be expected to take care of their younger sibling "all the time" because they "have a life too, you know." When I only had one child, I generally agreed with this. After all, watching my younger brother was such a drag, wasn't it?

I now have multiple children, a teen and two little ones (age 1 and 3). I've decided that the conventional wisdom, like so much else about today's culture, is bogus. It is an attitude that fosters selfishness, instead of selflessness, and emphasizes that family has little or no value, while "having a life"--defined as going out to fun places and hanging with friends--is much more important. Vitally, crucially, all-important. As for watching my little brother . . . I'm sure I thought it was a drag at the time. As an adult now, I am proud that my parents trusted me to watch him. Bear in mind that when I was sixteen, my parents left to go elk hunting across the state for a week and left me in charge of my 12-yr-old brother. I could drive. I could cook. I took him to see Jurassic Park. Okay, maybe that last detail doesn't show responsibility, but neither of us suffered. We didn't miss our Sunday obligation to Mass, either.

As people go through life, they forge new relationships at every turn. A new school, class, neighborhood, or job leads to new connections and friendships. Unfortunately, it can lead to the breaking or fading of old ones. Maybe that's less likely nowdays, with the internet, e-mail, texting, instant messaging and all the other ways people can keep in touch. Even with the new friendships, though, family should form a solid core of reliable relationships. In her book, Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold's Character, Aral Vorkosigan, says, "My home is not a place, it is people." Certainly, once people are married, home is the spouse and later, the children. That should not exclude a person's parents and siblings.

A family is a complex thing that take a lot of work, a lot of doing, to keep it in good shape. On a purely physical level, a family need a place to live and food to eat. The living place needs to be kept clean and the food needs to be prepared. Someone needs to work so the house and food can be paid for. People need clothes. Clothes need to be washed. Emotionally, the family and the people in it need security and stability. Having the physical needs helps with this, but stability is much more about healthy relationships than it is about having dinner on the table at 5:30 sharp every evening. Parents need to exercise self-discipline (like, I should have cleaned the kitchen before logging on this morning), and children need to accept discipline from their parents until they are mature enough to exercise self-discipline too. That's not a decision chidlren make on their own, by the way. Young people live under their parents' authority so long as they live with their parents, are supported by their parents, and still call their parents' house home. It takes a great deal of energy, time, effort and--there's that word again--self-discipline to make a family work. Everyone in the family has to do his or her part to help make that family work.

That brings me back to the idea of sibling taking care of one another. I do not mean that a parent should sluff their responsibilities off on and oldest child. My parents left my brother and I alone for one week out of 52. They were on a hunting trip, which in our family was about meat in the freezer. If they had taken off for Deadwood or Vegas every few weeks, the situation would have been completely different. I do mean that doing what needs to be done to keep the family working is the responsibility of everyone in the family. Everyone does what they are capable of doing to help out. Even my three-year-old helps out. She feeds the dog (under supervision) and puts the silverware away. She even helps set the table and sort laundry. Older siblings are capable of watching their younger siblings when mom and dad need to get other things done, or even when mom and dad need a break.

One thing that needs to be done in our house is walking the dog. Because we do not have a fenced yard, he needs to be walked first thing in the morning and again after dinner. I usually do the walking, but someone has to watch the little ones. It is not one whit inappropriate for me to wake my teenage daughter up early on a Saturday morning so I can walk the dog. Not is it inapproriate for me to have her come home early from friends' houses because he needs walked in the evening and my husband is on nights. It has to be done, so everyone has to pitch in to help it happen. Someone has to walk, and someone has to watch toddlers.

So I'm skeptical when an older sibling is complaining about watching younger siblings. It is part of keeping the family working, and that is top priority. It is more important than friends, more important than the mall or the movies. The older children need to learn love and responsibility toward their younger sibling. They should learn patience and compassion while taking care of younger ones. In turn, the younger sibling should learn love and respect for their older brothers and sisters, and parents should emphasize this. There is no bigger drag than watching a younger child who won't listen and won't be respectful.

In case anyone missed it, this is the reason for doing chores around the house too. It has nothing to do with getting an allowance. It's about keeping the family working smoothly.

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