One of the challenges I have faced, and still do face, is the challenge to train the younger ones, when it would be simpler to just get the older ones to do it! Regardless of the age gaps between your kids if you have more than one, you will have an older and younger. You will have at least one child who can do something better than another. It is easy to always call on that person to do a task. In my family it is easy to call on Joshua to do the heavy lifting, he’s the oldest, the strongest and I’m used to calling on him. But, Daniel is the same age as Josh was when I started calling on him for these man-tasks – it is time for me to call on Daniel. Daniel needs the opportunity to solve problems, to be helpful and to take responsibility. It would be easy for me to continue to rely on Josh – he has proven himself whereas with Daniel I may need to follow up or even give instruction. For Daniel’s well-being though I need to make this shift.
Two questions I ask myself when I’m getting ready to ask something of one of my kids:
- Who is the youngest child who can do this task? or
- Who will learn the most by being asked to do this?
The other question I do consider though is – do I have time to help this child with this task? What I’m doing in getting the younger to help me is actually training them and if I don’t have time to do that, there is no point in the frustration that will happen just because I’ve asked the youngest. We must keep in mind that getting our kids to work along side of us, is about them learning new skills. If I am continually asking the older, because I don’t have time to instruct, encourage and support the younger as they learn new skills something is wrong and my work-load needs to be reconsidered.
It is the same when giving instructions – if we keep giving instructions to all our kids as a group, our older ones start switching off or even resenting us; they start thinking that we don’t know and understand that they’ve got this, they know what to do. And I’m sure they do, and we need to give them that responsibility to do the right thing without our prompting or reminding. But do the younger ones? Probably not – so the instruction may well be needed but not for the whole family.
I see three levels here
- Those who know what to do and are characterised by doing it – let them go ahead and do it (though there may be times where you may find it helpful to ask them to report back to you so you know it is done)
- Those who you think probably know what to do but you aren’t 100% sure – ask them questions and as they answer you, they are telling themselves what to do. This is a part of transferring from you being responsible to them being responsible.
- Those who you know need the instruction (this is because they are characterised by not doing the right thing) – give them the instruction.
Remember our training falls in three stages: teaching, practising and then expecting them to do it. We shouldn’t be giving instruction in that third phase – they know to do it, they need to be allowed to go and do it (and if they don’t, if they are irresponsible, then deal with their bad choices, not the fact that they didn’t know what to do in the first place.)
The third situation that I have observed is when you have a very responsible older child that they take over some of the parenting. Though this seems helpful, it is actually not. For the older child it creates a sense of responsibility that is not theirs to carry. And for the younger child it removes the sense of responsibility that they should carry. For example – the younger child can conveniently forget what to put in their backpack, and the older one just gets them all organised. This means the younger one never has to think for themselves. The younger child will whine about being thirsty and the older will be helpful by getting them a drink, but it means the younger one isn’t pulled up, or corrected about their whining attitude – and they neither do they have to problem solve and go get themselves a drink! There is a fine line between the older being helpful and caring, and taking over learning opportunities that the parent should be using to train the younger. The reason the older is responsible is because there was never an older child doing things for them when they were younger! Without over-riding family dynamics and consideration for the other person, we need to give our younger children the same opportunities to grow in lifeskills and thinking skills for themselves.
Once again it is easy to let the older child take on these responsibilities – it is easy for us in the short term but not good for anyone really. Not good for the older child – they get resentful of being depended on, for being relied on to carry a larger load. Not good for the younger – they get lazy and irresponsible, and lack many life skills. Not good for the parent cause they aren’t parenting and will one day realise they’ve missed something!
We must remember to parent the younger children as intentionally and as consistently as we parented the older. This is tricky because as we add more children to our family the family dynamics change – but we must keep our eyes on the goal – and that is for each individual child to grow and mature as they were created to do.
What is the biggest challenge you face when you have more than one age group in your family?
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