The oldest wants to keep things neater than her siblings, and is often grumpy that “she is the only one who cleans up.” I understand her frustration, but she often takes on extra tasks independently. I don’t want to quash helpfulness! I also don’t want to spend hours trying to cajole the younger kids to keep things to their sister’s standard. And I really don’t want the oldest to put herself into a martyr role. How can I balance everyone’s personalities, capabilities and needs?
A: How can you balance everyone’s personalities, capabilities, and needs? Easy! You can’t. Well, that was an easy column, thank you for reading.
Seriously, though, I know that this letter is about chores and birth order and developmental milestones, but I would also like this letter to serve as a wake-up call for your parenting life. You are clearly a parent who is paying attention to your children. You care, you are trying to foster good habits and personal responsibility. You care about fairness and making sure each of your children feels seen. If I could have one wish granted, it would be that every child on Earth felt seen and loved by their caretakers. It sounds simplistic, but one of the strongest correlations to making it to one’s fullest potential is to feel deeply connected to your caregivers.
So it’s with a lot of love and respect when I tell you this: You’ve got to chill out.
There is precious little we can do when it comes to our children’s temperaments (and you definitely cannot alter the birth order). Maybe your eldest is more fastidious because she’s the oldest or maybe she’s just like that. Maybe the middle is right on track, developmentally speaking. And maybe that 4-year-old is exactly where she should be because being self-oriented and becoming grumpy easily is characteristic of that age.
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Instead of trying to balance all of their needs and personalities — which is impossible! — it’s time to focus on creating routines, as well as space for their big feelings.
The first step in addressing duties around the house and fairness is to hold regular family meetings to discuss chores. All chores should take on an apprentice feel, which is to say that all children are learning how to do different jobs at different levels. For instance, taking dishes from the dining room table to the dishwasher could be deconstructed into carrying the dishes, rinsing them and putting them into the dishwasher. Each age can be working at a different level, but all on the same chore. In a family meeting, you can break down the chores that everyone is working on and ask who needs help with what.
The simple but critical purpose of family meetings: To listen
Even with the order of regular family meetings, there will be grumbling. If your eldest is often complaining about how much she cleans up after her younger sisters, the best place to combat this is one on one. Take your eldest on a walk and say: “I’ve noticed that you are getting feisty with your little sisters around some messes. Tell me what’s going on,” and let her talk. She may really bad-mouth them and maybe even exaggerate the issues, but your job is to walk and listen. After she has calmed down, repeat back to her what she has said. “So it sounds like you clean, your sisters mess it up and leave; you have to go back in and clean it up again; and no one cares.” Repeating her story to her does two things: It makes her feel heard (crucial for children and adults) and you fact-check to make sure you got everything right.
From there, you can decide whether you need to work with your younger daughters to show some more consideration for their messes through modeling. (“Hey guys, your big sister is really cleaning this room, let’s help her!”) Maybe you need to change the chores if you need to support your oldest daughter with her anxiety and control, or maybe you need to pick up some of the slack. Or you need to just let it go and let it be what it is. The idea is that you aren’t balancing and pleasing and making sure everyone is happy; rather, you are bringing order, listening and making decisions out of need, not anxiety.
Rinse and repeat until your children are adults. By helping them think more critically, by modeling compassion and empathy, and by listening, you will get them ready for their lives ahead. Good luck.