Are Older Siblings Overburdened by Responsibilities? Or Are They Empowered by Them?

I have a backlog of great mailbag questions I got during and since the ol' hiatus. So, here's another one. The idea that I might be overburdening my kids with responsibilities around the home is something that I have definitely worried about myself, but, so far, what we're doing seems to be working well for us.
Hi Kendra,
First, thanks so much for your blog! Although I only have an 8 week-old son, I make mental notes from almost every one of your blogs for the future when, God willing, we will have a house filled with kids like you:) Here are the questions I have for you:
How do you respond to people who criticize you by saying that your older kids are raising your younger kids or imply that your older kids are missing out on their childhood by being responsible for taking care of younger members of the family? How do you balance the need for your older kids to have fun without their younger siblings while instilling in them that they are, literally, their brother's keeper, or is that even something you worry about? I hope those questions make sense and if not, feel free to ask for clarification;)
Thanks in advance!
Thanks for your question. This isn't a criticism I've really faced in person, or even on the blog that I can recall. But it is something that I have personally worried about from time to time.
My kids' childhoods look a lot different than mine did. They have a lot more responsibility than I ever did. All of our kids (except Lulu) have daily chores, plus they are expected to do whatever jobs I assign them as they come up during the day. They earn money for a few specific jobs, but most of them they do just because they are a part of this family.
Our three to six year-olds can throw away diapers and other trash, they can gather and put away shoes, they can help set and clear the table. They can empty little trash cans and put toys away. They can get themselves cold cereal for breakfast in the morning.
Our seven to ten year-olds can do the above plus feed and water the chickens, and collect the eggs. They can put leftovers away and load the dishwasher. They can read stories and put little kids down for naps. They can cook eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, prepare simple lunches, and make leftovers for dinner . . . and clean up afterwards. They can empty the dishwasher and they can take out the trash and sort the recycling. They can get the baby up in the morning and change her and feed her breakfast.
Our ten year-olds and up can do the above plus cook simple meals and clean up afterwards. They can do laundry and clean bathrooms. They can ride their bikes to the store to buy a backpack full of groceries, or to the library to check out or return books, or to their daylight sports practices. We will, of course, evaluate each child individually based on their temperaments and maturity levels, but so far we have felt comfortable trusting our kids older than ten to babysit their younger siblings while mom and dad are away from home. This includes mealtimes and bedtimes.
My kids have a TON of responsibilities. Really, they do. But, mostly, they don't mind TOO much. Here are some of the keys, I think, to why it's working for our family so far.
1. They Know That the Reason We Are Different is Because We Are Awesome
It all comes back to Family Culture. My kids know that not all families are like ours. They know that, in fact, the vast majority are not. But we experience our different-ness not as weird, or a hardship, but as . . . awesome.
Yes. They have a lot of little brothers and sisters to look after, but they also have a lot of people to play with, and a lot of little people to love and hero-worship them. Yes. They have a lot of responsibilities, but that's because they are given more trust and more opportunities than other kids.
Also, my kids know me well enough to know that I always mean what I say, and that Tierneys don't complain. Those two policies alone, really cut down on the majority of grumbling. We've all mostly figured out that if we all just do our parts cheerfully, things go a lot more smoothly.
2. We Try to Play to Their Strengths
I read once that Daniel Boone grew up in a big family, and that his main family chore, even as a young kid, was . . . hunting. He loved it, it was something for which he had a natural aptitude, and, clearly, it was hugely beneficial to his family. It really got me thinking about all the chore charts and chore wheels of the parenting world, and how those focus on "fairness" and "equal division of labor" rather than on what kids like or are particularly good at.
I know that between the husband and I, I'm better at some things, and he's better at other things. So, I do almost all the cooking and event planning, and he does almost all the schedule keeping and going to Costco. Because things work out better that way.
We have enough kids that we can mostly do the same thing for them.
For in-the-moment chores, I tend to assign them to whomever I see first, but the kids have regular daily chores, and those are assigned by aptitude. So my oldest (and most Daniel Boone-like) does grocery shopping and other errands. He much prefers it over other chores, and I really love that I can realize that we don't have any cream to put in the soup I was planning to make for dinner, go take a nap, and wake up to find that there's cream. Everyone wins.
As far as sibling-centered chores, those are all assigned as-needed, and they are actually very sought-after. Mostly because after lunch and dinner, I hand out chores to everyone, and all the big kids would much rather get a little kid in pajamas and read a story than work on the dishes.
3. We Don't Have an Expectation of "Fairness"
We don't do chore charts, we just do chores. I found that, for us, having systematic division of labor in our home created an attitude of entitlement in the kids. They thought they had "earned" such and such a reward by doing their daily chores and, therefore, it was their due. So, we quit doing that.
Now, my kids know to expect to do things to help our family throughout the day. But it's not always "fair." People get assigned jobs because they're not doing anything else productive at the moment, or because they've been driving me up the wall, or because I think they'll do a better job than anyone else. It's not always predictable. It's not always equal. But it is just.
4. More Responsibility Equals More Privileges
One of the things I say most often each day is, "What are you doing to help our family?" Everyone pitches in around here, or things just don't get done. But, obviously, the older kids are going to have to pitch in more than the little ones. I occasionally remind them that if they have a problem with their birth order in this family, they'll have to take it up with God. I wasn't in charge of that.
But still, it's a valid observation. The way we handle it is to make sure that our kids that have more responsibilities also have more privileges. The big kids do more work, but they also get to stay up later at night. That often means they get desserts and screen time that the little kids don't get. I make sure that they have more privileges and that they realize that they have them.
I'm also aware that if I'm going to ask my big kids to look after their little brothers and sisters, I need to not undermine their (reasonably used) authority over them. So, I back the big kids up whenever possible. One of our family rules is that little kids listen to what big kids tell them to do. I've sometimes had to rein older kids in a bit, but mostly, having a hierarchy works. And if I want to be able to go to the dentist without bringing seven children along with me (and I do want that, I really do) I need to reinforce the hierarchy.
And, really, seeing the way they interact with each other is SO sweet. The little kids drive the big kids crazy. Sometimes. But they also love their older siblings so, so much and think they are SO cool. I never knew that kind of blindly adoring love until I had children of my own. But my big kids have it every day.
5. They Can See That They Are Actually Useful
This is the part of giving my kids actual, real responsibilities in our home that I love the most. Okay, that's not quite true, the part I love most is not having to do All The Things myself. But a very close second, is the fact that I have children that aren't having to have their confidence propped up by participation trophies. They have the REAL confidence that comes from being actually useful and accomplished.
I could not run this house on my own. I couldn't. I need their help. This family could not run without the help of my big kids. That's something they can feel. They know how to cook food and do laundry and take care of other human beings, all things I didn't learn how to do at all until I went to college, and didn't learn to do with any skill until I was already married. (I did learn other useful skills like sewing and how to use power tools, but not cooking or cleaning.)
My nine-year-old can make pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon. All by himself. He takes a lot of pride in it.
That's the GOOD kind of pride -- based on hard work, and serving others -- that I want my children to have. And it's by giving my children real responsibilities and expecting a lot from them, that they are able to find true self-esteem.
That's what I'm hoping anyway.
Some other posts you might find interesting:

Encouraging Independence in Children: How We Roll

Can't Buy Me Love? Not For Chores Anyway.

Expect Great Things (and you just might get them)

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith. If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.
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