So. Almost seventeen years separate the birth of my first child to the birth of our babies 7 and 8, the twins.
Seventeen years, people.
Here’s some perspective. The year 1 of 8 was born, George H.W. Bush was president and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air starring a relatively unknown Will Smith premiered on television. By the year the twins were born, George W. Bush (son of George H.W. Bush) was president and Will Smith had been declared the most powerful actor in Hollywood.
My oldest kid and my youngest kids were born in different eras.
It’s an interesting experience, this raising of not just the next generation, but the next…and, by some definitions of generation, the next. The older of the OctaKids have such a powerful influence on the younger and the younger have access to far more complex social situations, more multi-age events and the cultural diet that comes from having older siblings still living in the home with them.
Case in point. I was out of town for a conference several weeks ago and hired 1 of 8 to nanny for me while I was gone. The younger kids had an absolute blast with her being in charge and she made the most of the time. She dressed up 7 of 8 in ‘geek’ wear and they had a ball with their photo shoot (hence the photos in this post. 1 of 8 manned the camera and took some incredible shots, I must say). There was mascara and lipstick and cat-eye eyeliner involved.
Needless to say, 7 of 8 thought it was the grandest thing ever.
If I’d had an older sister to doll me up and take great pictures, well….
I myself am the oldest child and only girl in my sibling group of origin. When I headed out into the social wilds of early elementary school, I had no guide, no mentor to usher me through that mine field of girl politics, costuming and insight into the pack mentality. I unfortunately seemed to land square in the center of a population of little girls who were the second or third girl in their families. They had all kinds of secret knowledge about social nuances and boys and clothes and music that I did not possess due to my lack of sage older siblings. Who knows? If I’d had an older sister to navigate me through those murky social waters, my social life might have been markedly different. I at least might have caught on to who Captain and Tennille were a little earlier.
This experience of raising a multi-generational household isn’t just the provenance of large families. I know many families who are blended families, with one spouse bringing a couple of teenagers to the mix and the other bringing preschoolers. I know families who had one child early on, thought they were done, and then, after a decade or so, found out that another baby was on the way. We have another set of friends who have his kids, her kids, their kid (and another on the way) and are also currently taking care of a passel of foster kids of varying ages. It raises some interesting issues and challenges…and joys.
1. Your older kids can have a huge impact on the younger.
We are in a unique season right now~~everyone is living at home. 1 of 8 was in France for a year and 2 of 8 was in NYC at Joffrey Ballet for a while, but for the moment, all eight are back under our roof. We try to not over-utilize the older kids as caregivers for the younger and we certainly don’t want them to feel like they have to parent their siblings in any way. And yet…it just happens. 2 of 8 is a very nurturing sort, and the younger children have long called her ‘MamaChenna’, their nickname for her. 1 of 8 is a source of all kinds of fun and instruction on cool music, hip styles, new trends. 3 of 8, as the oldest brother of group, organizes backyard clean-ups and projects. 4 of 8 is the sibling we most frequently hire as our babysitter. Just by virtue of the fact that the four oldest are older, they do wield a level of authority. In some ways, they seem almost like three favorite aunts and a favorite uncle to the four youngest kids.
2. Because the older kids can have such influence, honest conversations about lines of delineation between parenting vs. mentoring must take place.
There are areas I feel very comfortable giving some of the older sibs room to speak into the lives and behavior of the younger. The younger kids know they must obey the older when it comes to matters of safety, particularly when they are out with older sibs at the park or store. The younger kids know that when one of their older sibs is babysitting them, they are to toe the line just like would be expected if we had a babysitter not blood related. But as much as the younger kids look up to the older kids, as much as they admire them and seek their approval, when push comes to (sometimes literal) shove, the youngers are still quite aware that the older sibs are not Mom and Dad. They will sometimes sass. They will give push back. The situation can really spool up quickly when the older sibs are giving strong instructions…but I’m home. And the youngers know I’m home. And they sass back to the older sibling. They give push back. They demonstrate quite clearly that there is someone in charge and it ain’t the older sibling…’cuz Mama’s home. It’s a balance, keeping the youngers in line for when I’m out of the house and an older sibling is in charge, while the other side of scale features me coming back into the house, fully in charge and the older sibling now having to change their role. It’s a conversation we have frequently, with a couple of the older kids having a lot of opinion about the raising, keeping and care of the youngers. Generally we finish those conversations with me saying, “You don’t need to parent my kid. If you see issues, come talk to me privately. But don’t try to parent my kid with my kid standing there in front of us.” Which I am ironically saying to a person whom I also parent. But just as Mike and I do our best not to undermine each other’s parenting in front of our kids, so too do we try to hold this standard when it comes to the older kids’ involvement with the younger. Solidarity, man. It’s an important facet of parenting and co-parenting and older generation siblings….
3. Your younger kids are going to grow up faster and be babied more.
I had far more control over what my oldest children were exposed to and when than I’ve had with the younger children. The older kids looked to my lead for music, television, movies, conversation. The whole family life was focused on them and their world was conveniently contained within the confines of PreK to 3rd grade…not a bad stretch to manage. Whatever is a little too scary for a PreK kid is usually still a tad too scary for the 3rd grader. Whatever read-aloud book is appropriate for the 3rd grader still translates nicely for the PreK-er.
Enter the 17-year age gap scenario.
Your college-age daughter is dealing with the throes of dating and friends who are dating and friends who aren’t dating but are living together and you’re having conversations about all those issues and you think you’re having conversations in code about those topics until the 5 year old pipes up and says, “Shouldn’t people get married first?”
That’s not a conversation I had with the older kids until they were…older. So the younger set of siblings get far more information far faster and earlier.
They also have a population of people, Mom, Dad and older sibs, who very much enjoy them being little. Being darling small kids who still get completely delirious about Christmas. Who say hilarious things that weren’t intended to be hilarious and yet….
Who don’t need to figure out how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because there’s always someone taller, more capable, older, who can take care of that for you.
One of these days, I’m going to need to address that. But for now, the trend seems to be that we’re going to baby them. Enjoy them. And they’re going to pick up on far more than we intend for them to. It’s the nature of the next gen, best I can tell.
In the end, we’re a tribe, a confluence of eras, information, knowledge, youth, experience, insight, foibles, zaniness. It’s still an experiment fermenting, this older/younger sibling thing. I’m listening. I’m taking notes. I’m curious. Because in the end, for all of my kids, I hope they are friends. Even those for whom George H.W. and George W. separate. Even though The Fresh Prince morphed from one generation to the next.