Q: Our 16-year-old daughter constantly tells her younger siblings what to do and how to do it and that the way they do things isn’t good enough. It creates daily friction in the family. What can we do to make it stop?
A: A sense of humor would help. Fifty-plus years ago, parents took child rearing seriously, but they took children, for the most part, with the proverbial grain of sodium chloride. Today’s parents take child rearing seriously, but they also tend to take everything their children do seriously as well. This drains all the potential humor out of raising kids. I have a theory that Americans love family sit-coms on television because that’s the only arena where parenting is still funny. Today’s parents (and I speak in general terms, of course) have also made the grave mistake of paying entirely too much attention to and becoming overly involved with their children. In the process, they hang their egos on their kids’ behavior and achievements. The almost inevitable consequence is that their children come to depend on them to solve all manner of problems that children were once upon a time, and not so long ago, expected to solve for themselves. In clinical terms, it’s called co-dependency.
“Parents shouldn’t be involved with their children?” an incredulous parent exclaims.
This involvement stuff is less than fifty years old, you know. Once upon a time, not so long ago, children lived in one world and adults lived in another. Cross-cultural exchange took place, but that was the exception, not the rule. Today, involvement is the crux of good parenting. When I was a kid, it was my job to keep my parents from getting involved. I did so by simply being responsible—for my chores, my homework, and solving my own problems.
“Are you saying that parents shouldn’t pay a lot of attention to children?” the same reader asks.
That’s right. Too much attention handicaps a child’s ability to fully grow up. In this regard, there is general agreement among parenting pundits that adolescence now begins at 10 and lasts almost twenty years. In the second place, children don’t really like a lot of attention. They like to be ignored, to be left alone. But a child has no way of knowing that if he’s never experienced the joys of being ignored.
I’m describing a ubiquitous state of parental micromanagement, and when parents micromanage, children whine. The general theme of this whining is that everything is “too hard” and life isn’t fair. One of the most predictable themes of all this complaining has to do with being treated unfairly by siblings, which brings me back to your question.
I’ll just bet that when your younger kids complain about their older sister, you make the mistake of trying to solve the problem. Your involvement whips their conflict into a soap opera, replete with yelling and tears and general gnashing of braces. Like I said, you need to deal with this with a sense of humor. Instead of helping to whip this into an intergenerational drama, turn it into your very own family sit-com. The next time the younger kids come to you with tales of woe concerning older sis, just say, “I love you too!” and walk away, singing the first verse and chorus from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (Google ‘em). After they recover from their disorientation, they will catch up to you, complaining ever more loudly. Turn around and say, “Life is good!” (Sing the opening lines from “Stairway to Heaven.”) It’s important that you look like a permanent resident of La-La Land. Just keep doing this until they give up, which they will — eventually. Other equally irrelevant things you can say include “I hope the Cubs win the World Series” and “I just love those Led Zeppelins, don't you?”
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.