Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hurry Up & Wait!

Our age-related expectations can
pull kids in different directions.
As a father of three boys, I'm fascinated by the role of birth order in our personalities.  I can't offer much insight into gender differences (no daughters to observe!) but I see a lot of birth order drama play out in our daily lives.  Lately, I've been thinking about how our expectations as parents combines with birth order to create a pretty powerful influence on our kids.  I call this effect "hurry up and wait" because those are the messages the kids end up getting - "hurry up" for the older kids, and "wait" for the younger.

Looking back, I've come to realize that my unspoken expectations have been stretching my oldest son into greater maturity for his whole life.  When he was little, I couldn't wait for him to walk and talk.  Then I couldn't wait for him to learn to ride a bike or cross-country ski, so I could share those sports with him.  Then I couldn't wait for him to be old enough to share certain beloved books or movies with.  And recently (the experience that made me realize I've been doing this) I was disappointed that I couldn't take him to a concert for a musician we both enjoy. 

It's not just about the fun things, either.  When there are chores to be done, we expect adult results from him now that he's almost 12.  When the siblings are arguing, we're probably hardest on him because we have higher standards of fairness and maturity for him than the younger boys.  And in our homeschooling, we expect greater effort and higher quality work from him than from his younger brothers.

All his life, I've been wishing he were just a little older, eager to share experiences that were just out of his reach. That's not to say that we don't also do fun stuff that he's old enough for now - we do, but there's always an eagerness to do the next thing when he's ready.  Looking back, that's had a tangible effect on him - subconsciously, he's always being told to "hurry up" and get older.

At the other end of the spectrum his younger brother is more often forgiven for  childish behavior.  He's more likely to have things done for him, like reading or cooking, though he's capable of both.  He's more often held back by our expectations that he can't do things well enough.  And at the same time, since he's our last child, we seem to cherish his little-ness and act reluctant to let it slip away.  He's more likely to get cuddles, hugs, and other "young" physical affection.  You might say that he's always being told to "wait" - stay small a little longer, please!

I don't mean to imply that there's something wrong with doing this.  I think it's a natural and understandable tendency in parents, and it's clearly appropriate to vary our expectations according to our children's age and developmental stage.  But I think it's important to be aware of this tendency, and of the power it can hold in shaping our kids.  Now that I've recognized the pattern, I can choose appropriate times to let up and allow my oldest to be a kid when he needs to.  And I can look for opportunities to let my youngest stretch and grow and earn greater responsibility.  Hopefully, seeing this pattern of parenting behavior clearly will make me a better dad, and will make my kids happier, more self-secure kids. 

I doubt this tendency is universal across families.  It's easy to imagine a different person telling their oldest to "wait" and their youngest to "hurry up."  So I'm not sharing this with you because I think you deal with your kids' different ages the same way I do.  But I suspect that their ages impact your expectations in some way, and I'd bet you it's not something you're fully mindful of.


  1. Just found this and you've put into words something I knew I was wasn't getting quite right with our 3 boys as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I'm glad you found it useful, MexMarm :-)