Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sibling parents

In his four and a half years of life, Pip’s dominant examples of social interaction have come almost exclusively from Ava and me. While in some ways this relationship is to be expected of most children and their primary caregivers, Pip’s bubble has a few qualities that make it even more intense. For starters, since I am a full-time father, he has had very limited experience with non-familial caregivers like preschool teachers, day care providers, nannies, or even babysitters. Our home-centered childcare model also means that he does not currently have a classroom of peers that he interacts with on a regular basis. Instead, his contact with children his own age tends to be limited to whatever casual interactions happen on the playground. Lastly, as we don’t watch television with the kids, that avenue of social observation is also unavailable to him. For better or worse, when Pip wants a model for how to handle a situation, he is largely stuck with using what he has observed from us as his starting point.

One effect of this bubble is that frequently Pip’s mode of approach to Polly has been parental. At times this has taken on a classic, bossy older sibling form where he watches Polly closely and does his best to regulate her behavior according to the rules as he knows them. He keeps her from walking out into the street without a parent. He gently chastises her for throwing something inside the house. He asks her repeatedly not to splash water out of the bathtub. He does all these things because he has seen Ava and me do them.

But other times he mimics our caring acts, whether it’s helping Polly get something that is out of her reach or finding toys to entertain her while Ava and I are cleaning up the dishes. He is particularly quick to seek out ways to comfort her in times when he anticipates she’ll be upset.
He can be very creative in these endeavors. He’ll bring her little gifts from the toy shelf or he’ll make up silly rhymes to make her laugh.

One day this past week Polly woke up from her afternoon nap in a cranky mood. This sent Pip scurrying about in search of a way to help her through this. After about half-an-hour, as Polly’s mood started to brighten, I went into their room and found all their larger stuffed animals sitting on the floor. Tigger, Eyeore, Purple Duck, Blue the bear, Soft-soft Bunny, and Woolly Mammoth were arranged in a tight circle around George, a old teddy bear that is one of Polly’s favorites. When I asked Pip what was going on, he told me he had created a “family hug” for George in hopes that it would make Polly feel better. Whether this arrangement was meant to make her laugh or to give her a big hug using George as her proxy, I’m not sure. But either way it was a gesture that warmed all of our hearts.


These parenting efforts by Pip leave me feeling somewhat ambivalent. While there is plenty of historical precedent for older siblings taking on a parental role with younger siblings - particularly in larger families where taking care of younger brothers and sisters was frequently part of an older child’s core responsibilities – I feel like contemporary social expectations tell me that Pip is doing too much. He is supposed to be an independent kid, living his own childhood free from the burden of feeling responsible for someone else. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this feeling is coming from, but I can see some manifestation of it in the narratives of sacrifice that people use when they talk about unconventional families where older siblings take on tasks usually handled by parents or adult caregivers. In these narratives, older siblings often get depicted as martyrs, giving up their childhood so that younger brothers or sisters can have one. Such an understanding depends on the idea that the older siblings had little responsibility for their younger siblings in the first place.

Perhaps this is how it should be. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can feel the influence of this idea on my interpretation of Pip’s relationship with Polly. Early on, Ava and I tried to reduce the amount of behavior regulation work he did, telling Pip that such things were our job and that his job was to play with Polly. This did not really have much effect on him. I imagine there are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, the distinction we were trying to make was vague, randomly applied, and at times just confusing. It was unfair to expect a three or four-year-old to really make sense of it. For another, playing with Polly was something that Pip had to figure out and to do that he had to start somewhere. As his predominant examples for interacting with his sister were parental ones, it is not surprising that these approaches were the ones he tried first. On top of that, Pip’s social inclination is to observe and analyze the activities of other people. He is constantly interested in the actions of those around him, often to the point of distraction. With respect to Polly, this inclination led him easily into a mode of parental-style surveillance where he sees when she is doing something wrong and tries to help all of us by getting her to stop whatever it is.

More recently, we have backed off our attempts to actively shape the way Pip approaches his relationship with Polly. While we still step in when we sense Pip is getting overbearing, we have mostly allowed their interactions to develop as they will. Fortunately, this seems to be working as, on a daily basis, there is more play and less bossing than before. I think much of the reason for this is Polly’s own developmental growth and her quickly expanding physical and linguistic capacities. Her increasing ability to keep up with Pip makes the power dynamics in their play more balanced which in turn is enabling the emergence of the kind of relational structures that we were initially trying to force upon Pip.


All the same the power of the bubble remains in effect as Polly has now taken to doing a bit of parenting of her own. The same day that Pip built the family hug around George, Polly began trying to help Pip with his bicycle. While out on a walk that afternoon, Pip got his training wheels stuck on an uneven spot in the sidewalk. Usually when this happens, I give him a little push to get him going again. This time, Polly wanted to be the one to give him the push. She rushed forward and strained hard against the bike seat to get him moving. When he finally did inch forward again, she looked back at me with a twinkle in her eyes. She had helped Pip, just as any good parent would do.


  1. I love the 'family hug' thing. Stinking cute.

    Two things occur to my utterly uninformed mind while reading this: It sounds like you have two kids that really love each other. Be thankful for this when they're teenagers.

    The other thing: Anything can happen when Pip gets to a school playground, and his classmates will be a fantastic source of behavioural observations for him. It sounds like he already has the maturity and emotional literacy to be able to negotiate it.

    So... yay.


  2. My 6 year old has been treating the 2 year old in much the same way, it is awfully cute.

    I love this..
    "Lastly, as we don’t watch television with the kids,"
    My 2 year old can operate netflix on the ipad, we lost that battle years ago... ;)