My oldest son and I took a trip together, just the two of us. It was a relatively far trip (an eight-hour time difference) and a relatively long trip (six days) and for both of those reasons I decided to leave his three siblings at home. For two of them (17 month old twins, need I say more?), the choice was a no-brainer. For the other one, however, it was rather more ambiguous.
At four and a half, this kid was old enough to understand – not to mention complain about – the impending separation with perfect clarity. Equally, though, he was young enough that his ability to cope, and to cope well, with the trip itself was of legitimate concern: the extensive travel, the ineluctable jet-lag, the adult-oriented event the trip was centered around.
When I initially made the decision, I didn’t think too much of it. It was important for me to go to this wedding and the idea of taking a single kid appealed. Not only did it make good practical sense (cost-wise, ease-wise, childcare-at-home-wise), but it created an opportunity for me to do something special with son number one. I knew there would be repercussions for son number two – both negative and positive – but we have always made an effort to treat them as individuals and to make plans accordingly.
And then, on the eve of our departure, a good friend looked at me solemnly and said: I could never do it. Take one child to California, she meant, and leave the other one behind. Her response didn’t surprise me, but it did make me consider how the families we know tend to be split on this issue. Some separate the kids routinely and with little incident, while to others the practice is almost anathema.
I can actually remember the moment my husband and I vowed to be the former kind of family. It was before we even had children and, like so much of parenting, it was a reaction to somebody else’s. We were sitting at the table with our niece and nephew, watching them painstakingly negotiate the allocation of after-dinner candy from a pick-n-mix bag. The sweets for each had to be exactly the same. There was whinging, there was haranguing, there were repeated protestations of unfairness at the mere prospect of an uneven tally. It was very annoying. I immediately made a mental note, the kind we so blithely make before we actually become parents ourselves, that I would not reduce our future children to such scorekeeping.
Candy counting was emblematic for me of a bigger question. Not simply whether we should always treat our children the same: most people would find that impossible and undesirable for all sorts of reasons. But rather whether we should strive in our homes to create an expectation that each child is not necessarily entitled to everything his siblings are.
This is an admittedly hard line to walk. Kids seem to have an innate – and highly sensitive – barometer of injustice, particularly when it comes to their brothers and sisters. When they are small, we tend to deal with this by justifying our choices about what they can and cannot do, relative to one another, based on how old they are. It starts out simply enough: we are happy to leave the baby behind so that we can do things with the toddler that the baby can’t do or can’t do to our satisfaction. But at some point the ‘baby’ cottons on to the fact that he is being left. And then he objects to it. And then we have to decide how to handle the potential fallout.
It is a cliche that second children grow up faster than first children. In some sense this is inevitable. Constant exposure to an older sibling introduces interests and behaviors that aren’t, strictly speaking, age-appropriate: my second son was wielding a light-saber at an age when his older brother wasn’t yet walking. Similarly inevitable is the fact that younger children will want to be involved in almost everything their older sibling does. Often, they think it is their right. The issue, it seems, is what we do as parents to either encourage this belief or to dispel it.
I put a lot of stock in pecking order. As a second child myself, I have huge empathy for that plight. But as a mother, somewhat paradoxically, my instinct is that first children should be accorded a certain amount of ‘privileges’. It’s not that second children or third children (etc) don’t deserve privileges too, of course they do. It’s that first children are always going to be ready for certain things first.
As time ticks on, age (and age differences) become increasingly less determinative. There will come a point, no doubt, when the kids are all roughly old enough to do the same things. And yet, even then, I hope that I will still choose every now and again to do something special with one of them and not the others. I will try my best to divvy these occasions fairly, to make it so that they all get the same number of sweets, just not always the same kind.