Convincing my children that they’re not parents yet

mother pushing daughter on swingI can remember all the classic books of my childhood seemed to have a consistent theme of children growing up quickly as they learned to deal with difficult situations and overcome hardships. A staple of literature, the “coming of age” story, and when the pioneer daughter had to take over the parenting, cooking and household operation at 14 or 15 because Ma had died from an Indian raid or influenza or something, that was gripping and compelling.

Just as in the Harry Potter series, children all want to believe they have what it takes, hidden, secret skills that would let them not just survive in the adult world, but thrive. It’s Tom Sawyer gettin’ jobs done without havin’ to get his hands dirty in ways more ‘genious than the big ‘uns would ever imagine.

When it shows up in your family, however, it can be more of a problem because it’s then that you realize that while these children are gaining an early experience as adults, parenting, running households, etc, they’re also losing something incredibly precious: their childhood.

Looking back on it, Tom might have had a great adventure, Harry might have been able to ultimately overcome Voldemort, but what happened to their innocence, their play, their sense of wonder with the world that was expanding around them, week by week, month by month?

Divorce is a tricky one for children because in some ways it is similar to the death of a parent. When they’re with me, there’s no Mom, and when they’re with their Mom, there’s no Dad (even though she’s since remarried, the kids clearly do not see him as a substitute for me. They miss me when they’re with her, and vice versa. Quite naturally).

When there’s a void, things expand to fill it, and so my oldest, just a few weeks from turning 17, finds herself in a difficult spot where she doesn’t see herself so much a peer of her younger siblings as much as a peer of her parents, a young adult ready to step into the world, grab the car keys, get a job and start thinking about college and living on her own.

The result: she often puts herself in the position of being the parent of her younger siblings, which just about everyone involved finds frustrating, including her. Without actual parental authority, it’s hard for her to make things run more smoothly, even though her intentions are splendid.

And so a constant refrain in my house is “don’t be the parent”. Yet we go through this regularly, and it’s not just her. Each of the children try on the crown of parent at times, usually to remind the others that they’ve done something wrong, they’ve forgotten something or they are behaving in a way that’s inappropriate.

This is probably just something I have to learn how to deal with myself, because I don’t think I can get them to stop, and even if there was a Mom (or step-mom) in the picture, this might just be a typical child behavior with siblings of significantly different ages. Heck, I know other families where the 17yo daughter is clearly the second mom to the 10 or 11yo child in the house.

Still, why would you want to be a parent to your siblings if you don’t have to be? It’s… odd.


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