I sometimes find myself reminding my daughters—particularly the oldest, aged eight and 10—that it is not their job to parent their sisters. They will attempt to enforce family rules with their younger siblings, or repeat directions the parents have already given. Aside from the fact that the younger girls tend not to take this very well, it is clearly not their job to take on the responsibilities of parenting.
Granted, there are various reasons why the older sisters would want to step into the role of parenting lieutenant. For one thing, they’ve been around longer, and are familiar with the rules; they also have a better understanding of how these rules (assuming that they agree with them) help the household to run more smoothly. For another, as they get older they are taking on more responsibilities with chores, helping to prepare meals and set the table, getting ready to go out, etc. We will be comfortable with letting the eldest girl begin to babysit in earnest in only a couple of short years. And these are good things.
However, they occasionally need to be reminded that they are not parents (the four and six year-olds are happy to help, which brings about its own issues: “You’re not the parent!”). Nor should they be. Their job is to be kids, and this is a full time position. They should be playing, and reading, and making things, and when parents deem it appropriate they can take on specific duties for which power has been granted. But rules, directions and discipline should come from the adults in the household. As parents, it is our job to establish and maintain routines, to plan and execute meals and household projects, to supervise the children and ensure that they are doing what needs to be done (and not doing, you know, what doesn’t).
Why is this a big deal? In the case of my own family we are fortunate to be dealing with some pretty mild and superficial instances of children taking on more than is appropriate. In extreme cases, children are compelled not only to take on the duties and responsibilities of adult caretakers but to fulfill this role with the adults themselves. The term for this is parentification. Good ol’ Wikipedia defines it succinctly as “the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life.”
This much more severe and complicated condition arises when parents are unable—due to issues with addiction, mental illness or trauma—to maintain adult functions in the family and lean on the kids to take up the slack. An example would be that a child is planning meals and cooking for the whole family, or dressing and preparing younger siblings for school. Another form this may take is known as “emotional parentification.” This is when parents share with children their very adult situations and emotions. The child becomes a confidant; in extreme cases, according to this website, the child takes on the role of “a surrogate spouse or therapist.” Even if a child is willing or even eager to take this on—who does not want to please their parents?—it can be very damaging because they do not have the emotional or intellectual development necessary to process adult problems.
It is important to keep in mind not only what the child’s job should be, but the parent’s as well. Adults should not expect to gain validation, entertainment, or emotional support from their kids. This is not to say that we cannot, or should not, enjoy and celebrate the things that kids can do, or that when they are being entertaining we should not laugh, out loud, and often. But as I remind them (and sometimes need to remind myself) taking care of them is my job, and that’s a one-way proposition.