I am 17 and the oldest of five children. My parents treat me as their built-in baby-sitter every weekend. I never get a chance to make social plans because they are always busy with their friends and leaving me with my little brothers and sisters. Is it ever OK for me to say “no”?
Often, older children in large families have many responsibilities with regard to their siblings, but it seems your family system needs to find a balance so that every member has an opportunity for outside social engagements.
Responsibilities within the family. Our catechism notes that, “The home is the natural environment for initiating a human being into solidarity and communal responsibilities.” (CCC 2224) Each family member has responsibilities. Even young children should have age-appropriate chores to help keep the household running smoothly. As children get older, their abilities change and so does the nature of their responsibilities. Over time and across cultures, older siblings have cared for their younger siblings, and it is an opportunity to learn useful skills.
Expectations of parents. Parents need to take stock of their expectations. After a long week of work, many of us long to relax! “Couple time” away from the home can enhance the marriage. However, spending time with friends is a reasonable activity for a high school student, too. Caring for four younger siblings is a challenging task. According to the catechism, “Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons.” (CCC 2222)
Share your thoughts and feelings. Have you shared how you feel with your parents? It will be more effective if you present your perspective in a mature way rather than complaining that, “I never get to do anything.” As we read in Colossians (4:6), “Let your speech always be gracious ...” Explain how much child care you feel comfortable providing each weekend, knowing there will be variation based on your activities and those of your parents. Parents line up babysitters in advance when they hire outside the family. Talk about how far ahead of time you would like your baby-sitting commitments to be arranged, keeping in mind that spontaneous needs do arise.
At 17, you may be moving out of the house soon for school or employment. This discussion is a first step in learning how to interact with your parents as a young adult. “Obedience toward parents ceases with the emancipation of the children; not so respect, which is always owed to them.” (CCC 2217)
Dr. Cathleen McGreal is a psychology professor and certified spiritual director.