Siblings: Balancing responsibility with childhood joy

Sometimes a little mess can be a beautiful thing

Our tiny little household is most often filled with the sounds of children. There are days when I’m flying solo with my little toddler person, and I am indulgent in this time with only him. We read stories together, we make fruit smoothies together, we lay for hours in bed having snuggles and tickles and bounces and songs. It’s precious time that I love and cherish.

And then there are times when our household is filled with the sounds of older children too. We are privy to fantastic plays put on by our older girl and her friends. I’m lucky to be able to watch her read stories with my toddler, or smother his belly with kisses as he tries to spit out her name in that barely comprehensible toddler language. They have a wonderful bond (so far), and I’m sure that to one another they are the other’s best friend.

When it is just the toddler and I, our house is quieter. But we are also filled with moments of longing and missing and waiting for our step-children to come over, eager to hear their stories and tales of their first days of school, their new extra-curricular activities, the happenings of the schoolyard.

A delicate balance

And likewise, when they are over, it requires a delicate balance to ensure that each child is given time to themselves. Time with the parents; time without babysitting the toddler; time to make sure that they feel they aren’t being taken for granted. Because certainly, their presence is never taken for granted. But with older children, it’s easy to put the extra responsibilities upon them. After all, they “should know better”. They need to act as “a model” for their younger siblings. They are adept at babysitting, at minding the smaller children. It might be easy to accidentally criticize them for teaching their smaller siblings to run in circles in a restaurant, or to throw things across the room.

It’s hard at times to remember that they are still children themselves. Simply because they’re older (and a little bit wiser), doesn’t mean that they know everything. They are still our children, despite the length of their years, and they still need time to themselves — moments to just be a child, just as our tiny ones do.

And it’s so much fun to simply watch them be children! I was recently rewarded with the most awesome moment (and awesome mess to clean up), by simply letting my children of various ages be messy. Here’s how it happened.

A wonderful mess

Normally, when making supper (or attempting to), it is easy to ask our nine-year-old to watch her little brother and keep him out of trouble. And of course she would huff and sigh and groan, feeling it to be a chore rather than something fun; rather than quality time. Of course it’s a chore: even though they love one another, she is being tasked with an assignment, so it’s no longer fun.

On this occasion, she asked instead if she could make goop — i.e. cornstarch and water. Inwardly, I cringed at the thought of the mess, but I acquiesced, with the caveat that she had to include the toddler in the giant mess. She looked at me stunned, pointing out that it would be even messier with him. And I simply pointed out how much fun he would have. We talked a bit about how important the feeling of textures is for little people as they learn motor skills and develop their senses. And that really, he’d probably have a blast with her and we’d worry about the mess later.

Photo by Leisha Sagan.
Photo by Leisha Sagan.

So atop the counter the toddler went. Our girl donned an apron, got out a couple of bowls, and started mixing cornstarch and water. The goop was soon everywhere: in hair, on the counter, dripping down the cupboards, coating our newly canned jars of jam — and with the mess came squeals and giggles and the remark “I can’t believe we’re doing this!!!” Their father walked in, looking absolutely stunned, as I calmly noted: “Check it out, I got supper made before 9 p.m.!”. And so while he made a salad to go alongside supper, I gathered the children, ignored the mess, and plunked them both in the tub. This elicited more giggles and squeals from them both, as they simply delighted in one another’s company with bubbles and toys and swimming and splashing.

No complaints about babysitting. No feelings of being taken for granted. Just happy, silly, laughing children both feeling important. Both feeling their wishes were taken into consideration. Both having a grand time.

And afterward, the girl went into the kitchen, got out a mop, and without us even asking, attempted a slightly haphazard cleaning of the goop.

Appreciation all ’round: we must be doing something right.

It doesn’t always feel that way, but really, as parents we do the best we can. It’s easy to forget that our older kids are still just kids, when there are babies and toddlers thrown into the mix. And while it’s often easier for our own sanity to task them with chores and responsibilities—simply because they’re older—it can come with a price of its own. Not to say that kids of all ages don’t benefit from having responsibilities; certainly they do. But to always put the brunt of responsibility on them simply because they’re older neglects the fact that they too are still children. And this can create issues of responsibility between the children. I want my kids to grow up being friends. I don’t want our older child being her brother’s keeper, or his guardian, or his babysitter. I want them to be friends.

Time will tell if their lovely bond holds. But for now I’ve got to believe that I’m doing something right. If their laughter and squeals are any indication, I think that at least most of the time I am.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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