I recently read an interesting post by Jayne Crammond about her very valid concerns that she didn't want to make her daughter feel somehow responsible for her new sibling. Superficially I couldn't agree more - whilst many children are indeed Carers for siblings or older family members it is far from ideal, robs many of their childhood and eradicates that fundamental freedom from responsibility which is essential to experiencing childhood to the full.
But I would argue that responsibility is two-fold. Whilst yes, the parent is at all times responsible for his or her child, there is no reason why an older sibling should not help. Their level of responsibility is no less valid and can bring huge benefits. The older sibling gains a feeling of importance, a boost to their sense of self worth and a valuable enforcement of the links which bind them to their family.
In a society where the focus is too much on the self, too much on individual rights and needs it is essential that children are taught they have a role within the wider world, and that role exists on several levels. The early stages in social connectivity start at home, within the family. Helping Mummy carry out simple chores can be fun, helping the child feel involved and valued. My toddlers helped fetch simple items, put their bowl in the dishwasher, pick up their toys etc. This has also had the added benefit of teaching basic life skills, and an awareness of all that is involved in day to day living. At no time did I make any of them feel the outcome of such tasks had a bigger purpose, of that this simple type of responsible helping had any connection to Responsibility for the outcome. (capital "R")
As children grow up they need to learn - want to learn - that they can influence their surroundings. Not by asking for new toys, TV programmes and sweets, but by being actively involved within their family and later, in the wider world. This is enforced at school - even in Reception children are given simple tasks and praised for their efforts. The child who feels they have no means to increase their self esteem by participating in helping others seeks to boost it in other ways, valuing objects and gain instead of interaction with others.
And it works both ways- the grandparent who gives of their time, involves their grandchild and values their presence will gain far, far more from that relationship than the one who seeks to maintain a strong relationship by focussing on the child's needs. Teaching children - however young - that we all have needs is vital. None of us exist in isolation and most human beings are happier interacting with others. It saddens me that too many children are put on pedestals, showered with gifts and wanting for nothing. They exist on the edge of their families, or above them, not an integral part of a solid unit.
It is really only recently that the very idea that siblings might have a choice in helping has existed. Historically older siblings have always helped out and derived a huge amount of pleasure, satisfaction and pride in doing so. Maybe the fear of siblings feeling weighed down by too much responsibility has pushed us in the opposite direction in a knee jerk response. But responsibility is not a dirty word! What matters is that it is always preceded by the word "appropriate". There is a reason there is no minimum age for children to babysit. A parent is always Responsible, but children can still learn responsibility.
If you partition a family into several individuals with unique needs rather than a group they easily lose interest, concern and sometimes even respect for other siblings/family members. Helping out is the glue which holds a family unit together, I think any kind of family support should be instinctive, encouraged and expected. There is far too much consideration of individual rights these days.
For us however with at least one member on the Autism Spectrum this is profoundly difficulty. Autism has sometimes been termed "Selfism", in that Autistic individuals find empathising with others acutely difficult. But high functioning individuals can and do learn to be a cog in a bigger machine, it just takes time and effort. We struggle hugely with this, and all too often fragment into a group of individuals rather than a family unit. But it is something we focus on whenever possible.
And that's where that word "appropriate" comes in. No one shirks responsibility, and helping out improves family connectivity and overall happiness.