When my youngest child was 4 years old, I met with his preschool teacher to discuss his development. She said he was a sweet little boy but had trouble sharing with his classmates. “When another student is playing with a toy he wants, he’ll say, ‘I’m the baby. Give it to the baby’ and grab the toy out of the other child’s hand," the teacher explained. "I have to remind him that everyone here is a baby, and that he needs to wait his turn.”
I immediately understood why this was happening. My son was much younger than his two sisters, ages 12 and 9. Because of the significant age difference, I would often ask my daughters to please just, “Give it to the baby” when the three of them argued over games, treats, TV programs, etc. It seemed simpler to let him have what he wanted, especially if I was in the middle of making dinner or on my way out the door. But the teacher’s comment made me realize that we were indulging my son way too much.
Many parents like me tend to baby the baby of the family for many reasons. For one, each step your last child takes toward independence can feel bittersweet when you know you'll never have a baby around again. Parents (and even siblings) may continue to do things for the youngest child — such as carry him when he can walk or feed him a bottle rather than have him hold it himself — because they enjoy the role of caretaker and are sad to see each stage of childhood end.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the youngest child is overindulged because parents are tired of the parenting role. Dr. David Bredehoft, psychologist and co-author of the book How Much is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children — from Toddlers to Teens — in an Age of Overindulgence, explains it this way: “Let’s say the baby is the third or fourth child. The parents are outnumbered and often worn out at this point. The parents just give in because it is easier than being the bad guy that is always enforcing the rules. They wind up treating the youngest child more like a friend than a child. Friend is a very different role than parent.”
Another reason the youngest child may be babied is simply because his family has a hectic life. Child psychologist Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore explains, “Multiple children means parents are very busy juggling many tasks at once. It takes less effort for parents and siblings to do things for the youngest child rather than to spend the time encouraging and teaching this child to do these tasks. For example, when you're rushing an older sibling to soccer practice, it's faster put the coat and shoes on the little one rather than to wait for him to do it for himself.” Essentially, the youngest child in a busy family is akin to that intern at your office — you know, the one you keep avoiding delegating tasks to because it's more work to train them than to just make the spreadsheet yourself.
Bredehoft says, “If you give a sweet treat or an iPhone to a child to play with to quiet him down, you are rewarding the wrong thing. You are teaching the child to throw a tantrum to get what he wants.” As the child gets older, this behavior will likely continue to have an adverse impact. “An overindulged child can grow up into an adult who has a temper and who always needs to get his way," Bredehoft warns.
Older children can also be negatively affected by parents babying their sibling; if parents constantly favor and overindulge the youngest child, the older ones can grow jealous and resentful. Bredehoft says, “All children, not just the youngest, need attention from their parents. Giving children attention when you catch them being good (positive reinforcement) encourages children to engage in appropriate behavior.”
Whether you are parenting your first child or your fifth, Bredehoft advises parents to concentrate on being in the role of parent rather than the role of friend. His advice is something of a tongue twister but undeniably true: “If a parent is a friend, it is very difficult to parent when your child needs a parent the most.” All those un-fun parenting responsibilities — such as enforcing rules and assigning age-appropriate responsibilities at home — help children become independent and get along with others in the real world. Being their best buddy does not.
Many older children relish having a younger child look up to them, and the older sibling's role can be a big help to parents who feel pulled in many directions. Rather than asking older children to give in to the youngest or do things for her, encourage them to teach their sibling. Younger kids can become more confident by learning to do things on their own — such as tying their own shoes or cutting their food. Of course, don’t force an older child to take on the responsibility of teaching these skills if they're not interested (it’s still a parent’s job to parent), but do praise them when and if they act as positive role models for their younger siblings.
As for playing together, competitive games may not be the best choice when there is a wide age/development difference between children. Instead, cooperative play — such as building with Legos or coloring — can be fun ways to interact. Kennedy-Moore says, “Kids vs. grown-ups-type games can also be a good way to build sibling closeness.”
While parents may mean well when they baby their baby, everyone has to grow up eventually. Says Kennedy-Moore, “Kids start growing up and away from their parents from the time they are 1 month old. But each stage also brings new ways of connecting with our kids. Little kids are cute, but bigger kids are more interesting because they bring more ideas, abilities and experiences to the relationship.”
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