The Responsible Older Child

The Responsible Older Child

The Responsible Older Child [Illustration by Shinod AP]

If you have a sibling, your relationship with them is likely to be the longest lasting you’ll ever have with another human being. You may have fought continually as children or you may have been each other’s best friends.

Either way, these are the people who share your roots, who accepted or rejected the same parental values and who probably deal with you more candidly than almost anyone else you know.

I have a younger brother and he is the best gift my parents have given me. When my parents brought my brother home from the hospital, I was so eager to hold my brother that I had wrapped up my homework and raced through my chores even before they got home.
My interest in him continued. Once he could toddle around, I included him in my fantasy play, making allowances for his inability to follow my instructions. I was enjoying the privilege of playing the role of big sister.

But it didn’t last long. The first time I felt threatened was when my brother grabbed my favourite doll and refused to give it back to me. Complaining to my parents was of no use. I was simply asked to understand because I was his didi (elder sister in Hindi).

All of five years old, I was expected to behave like a 15-year-old. For many years, I found it difficult to digest that I had to make sacrifices just because I was older. It heightened my envy that nagged me for many years.

As an adult, when I look back at those years, I realise that my parents did everything possible to treat their children equally so that there was no cause for envy. But like most parents, they unwittingly fell into the “make-the-older-one-responsible” trap.

As adults, we always expect the older child to be responsible and mature. But imagine how difficult it would be for a child to behave like an adult. As if adults are easily able to share their things or make sacrifices for other people!

One of the most common traps adults fall into is to coax the elder child to become the role model the moment the younger one enters the scene. I still remember being told repeatedly – “If you do this, your brother will also learn to behave like this” – which only served to raise my hackles. This doesn’t work with children because each child is born with a strong desire for exclusive love from her or his parents.

Every parent is anxious to make the older child responsible. But responsibility cannot be imposed on children. It must grow from within. While I did resent being asked to give in to my younger brother’s demands, my parents helped by emphasising how important I was to my younger brother.

Some of the happiest moments of my life were when I helped in looking after him. As an ‘assistant caretaker’, I loved changing his clothes and occasionally even fed him. Fortunately, my parents never pushed me into it. So instead of being a burden, which it often becomes for the older sibling, it was like playing with a walking-talking doll, who more than once gave me a loving dose of stew on my nose.

Babies seem to come into this world ready to adore their elder siblings. And despite the bumps and potholes in our relationship, mine still does.

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