BY KATE HUNTER
Sometimes I get my 11-year-old son to listen to his little sister’s reading homework. Actually, I do it most nights.
Although I’m a children’s author, I have little patience with children learning to read. It’s just the way I am. When I was five and learning to read myself, it drove me nuts if the kid I was sharing a reader with was slower than me. ‘It says, See Dick and Jane run,’ I’d huff, ‘Can we please turn the page now?’
I absolutely realise the value of reading with children, but I don’t think it needs to be me – as long as someone does it. Bonus if it’s a relative.
Ben is a bookish kid, and part of his homework is to read with a member of his family. That might as well be his little sister, right? Apparently not.
Last week, another mum at my kids’ school was semi-complaining about all the ‘homework’ our little ones get. I laughed and told her I outsource some of it to my other kids. She was shocked.
‘But you read aloud with Ben when he was small, why should Sally miss out on that time with you? And why should Ben have that responsibility. He’s only eleven!’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘He’s the eldest.’
That was a pretty ordinary response, I know, but I was under fire in a way I hadn’t experienced since I revealed I sometimes drop my kids at the Library while I nip into Coles.
It made me think about how focused today’s parents are on treating all their kids equally. I don’t believe it’s possible, or something worth striving for.
My friend Cathy is one of twelve kids (and has four herself) and says people should parent as if they have a big family – even if they have just the one. It teaches resilience, responsibility and unselfishness.
This approach makes sense to me. I don’t see how it can be bad for a girl to spend an hour doing craft with a younger brother. Or a boy to watch a toddler while their mum shoots off a few emails. It’s better than spending that 30 minutes on the Wii, surely?
To offset these duties, there are a lot of benefits in being an eldest – for a while you had your parents to yourself, you get all the new clothes, rode in stroller free of crusty dried banana smear. Possibly you stayed up a bit later and there will invariably be more photos of you in the family album.
Similarly, if you’re down the birth order, the rules often become more lax. My youngest was watching Harry Potter at age 4 and got Barbecue Shapes to shut her up so I could help her sister make a model of Uluru.
I know some families work extremely hard to make sure every child is treated equally. They ensure every kid receives the same number of Christmas presents, plays an equal number of sports. One family I know counts the chips on dinner plates to avoid accusations of favoritism and save on therapy down the track.
Really? I want to say, ‘Can’t you just tell your kids that everyone is different, and in the grand scheme of things they all do bloody well?’
One day their chip ship will come in.
To me, a family is more than a collection of individuals. It’s greater than the sum of its parts. Members of our family can do and have most things, but not at the same time. I can’t manage it. Not if I want to stay married, financially solvent and out of rehab.
And we can all do more fun stuff if everyone pulls their weight. At our place, that means Ben helping Sally with her reading while I cook dinner. Sally would love to play soccer but we can’t manage that on a Saturday because of the others’ sport, so she’ll have to wait another year. A bit tough for her, but she’ll get over it. We can only be in two places at once.
If anyone feels sorry for my kids because they aren’t treated equally all the time, please don’t. They are fine – happy, loved and educated. Save your sympathy for children in warring countries who aren’t reading to their little sisters, but raising them.
If you have siblings, did you have to help out with them as kids? If you’re a parent, how much do you expect your older kids to do? Is it different for only children?