"I wish I were a grown up. Then I can drive you around instead of you driving me around!"
"I can make parmesan toast all by myself!"
"I'm only going to eat scrambled eggs if I make them from now on."
These days the desire for independence and responsibility is sprouting up like spring flowers around our household. As a parent, I am wanting to harness all of this "I want to do this all by myself" energy into true, appropriate skill development. It's a great blessing to our whole household to be able to trust my 6 year old to floss her own teeth or for my 7 year old to help me with folding the laundry. They are actually starting to help things move forward faster and get done! It's pretty great.
But what do you do when they are taking too much responsibility?
The other day, out of the blue, Anna said to me, "I don't think I can be an actress after all."
"Oh really? Why Anna?" (I was somewhat surprised because Anna is into all things theatre, performance and "on a stage" these days.)
She replied, "Well, if I'm an actress, I don't think I'll be able to take care of Joshie."
It touched my heart to hear that my 6 year old daughter is already thinking about taking responsibility for her brother. But, at the same time, I wonder what it must be like for her to grow up carrying the burden of her brothers needs.
Recently, I've been reading What about Me? Growing up with a Developmentally Disabled Sibling by Bryna Seigel and Stuart Silverstein. One chapter in this book talks about a dynamic that they call "parentification" which is used to describe siblings who react to a disabled brother or sister by precociously taking on a parental or caregiving role with respect to that sibling. The authors warn that, while being aware of the needs of others can be a very positive element of a child's development, a great drawback of parentification is the loss of one's own childhood and the freedom to experience the natural "self centeredness" that young children go through.
My husband and I are very eager to protect our daughters from a sense of overresponsibility. We made the choice to put both of them into kindergarten on the later side so that they could be a little older as they go through their schooling. We are careful with what we ask them to do in terms of helping us with their brother. But clearly, we cannot protect them from seeing the reality that they are likely to be relating to Joshua for many more years than we are.
"Oh sweetie, that's very nice of you," I told Anna. "But Josh is going to be living with Mom and Dad so you don't have to worry about him living with you."
"But what about when you die?" (Ah, kids are so honest, aren't they?)
I looked her in the eyes and said, "Anna, when Mommy and Daddy die, Josh will probably live in some sort of group home situation. You and Hope can help take care of him but you don't have to have him live with you."
Anna took a few seconds to let that adjusted reality sink in.
"Ok." She said, happily moving on. "I guess I WILL be an actress. . . and a pastor. Can I do that?"
"Yes, Anna. You can."