Valuable Life Skills vs Suffocating Responsibility: How to Tell the Difference

When I was a teen, I did lots of babysitting for my siblings and other families. My youngest brother was born when I was sixteen, and I even got to be in the hospital room when my mom delivered him. I was homeschooled my final two years of high school and that gave me lots of opportunities to care for him in all kinds of ways. Diaper changes. Bottle feedings. Playing. And lots more!

I thought for sure I knew everything I needed to know to be a mom. I was wrong. And that was actually a good thing.

Too Little vs Too Much Responsibility

In our current American culture, we hear a lot about the dangers of "helicopter parenting" - parents who hover and manage everything for their children, never giving them an opportunity to be independent, learn for themselves, and be responsible for their own choices. Helicopter parents have a hard time respecting their children's age and ability and treat them as younger than they are.

But there is an opposite, and perhaps more damaging danger: parentification.

In its most extreme forms, parentification means that a child is forced to take on a caregiving (parenting) role for his or her parent(s). Wikipedia says, "Parentification is the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent or sibling."

Types of Parentification

Parentification is further classified into two categories: Emotional Parentification and Instrumental Parentification.

Emotional Parentification occurs when a child is made responsible for the emotional health of his parent, or his parent confides in him about life stressors that are beyond his ability to understand or process.

Instrumental Parentification occurs when children are put in charge of adult responsibilities - especially parenting responsibilities - that are beyond their level of ability or maturity.

In this article, I want to focus on Instrumental Parentification.

How Can You Tell the Difference?

If you're reading this article, it's probably because you care deeply about being a good parent and want to be aware of potential pitfalls to avoid. When I first read about parentification, I started questioning some of my own choices. "Well ... the seven year old does sometimes pour cereal for the four year old. Is that parentification?"

Perhaps you're wondering how to tell if your kids are in danger of parentification. That's what I want to dive into today. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

Keep Responsibilities Age-Appropriate

When you read articles about parentification, one of the most common admonitions is to make sure to assign age-appropriate chores or responsibilities for children. This makes sense.

But when you have a large family and/or homeschool, you might find yourself moving outside of the box of what your children's peers might do for chores on an ordinary day. For example, is it age-appropriate to have an eight year old change a diaper or milk a goat? Well, that depends on the eight-year-old, doesn't it?

Instead of considering a child's age, it might be more relevant to consider their ability and maturity level. Even within the same family, what one child is able (and even eager) to handle at a certain age might not be a good fit for another child at that same age.

I recently shared this graphic on my Facebook page and it got a lot of laughs. It's meant to be a joke.

But it's less funny when you realize that there may be some families who expect their five year old to be quite for several hours or the twelve year old to be virtually self-supporting. Those are extremes, to be sure. But where's the line between precocious world-schooler who has lots of extra opportunities for life-learning, and the child who is experiencing parentification?

Whose Needs are You Serving?

Avoiding the emotional damage of parentification isn't as simple as choosing only chores from an approved checklist or forbidding small children from operating heavy machinery. The real question is whether you are seeking your child's best interest in the decisions you make.

For example, it is health for members of a family to participate in the work of the household to the degree they are able. Preschoolers can put away clean silver wear or take their used dishes to the sink. Older children can sort and fold laundry. Teens can mow the lawn.

Yes, these tasks serve the family as a whole, but it is in the child's best interest to learn to be a participating member of any community in which he lives and from which he benefits.

Are you calling on your child to serve for his own good and for the good of the family? Or are you calling on him to serve for the good of the family and to his detriment?

Do You Provide the Resources Needed?

If your intent in requiring children to participate in the work of the household is truly to train her in valuable life skills, the way you approach those chores will demonstrate your motive.

Do you provide her with the training needed, proceeding forward with requirements at a pace according to what you observe about her skill and competence? Are you willing to work alongside him as much as necessary to see that he has mastered the requirements of the job?

Do you provide her with the time she needs to complete her responsibilities and still have time for learning, rest, recreation, and socializing? Or do the tasks she is required to do for the family dominate and overwhelm her schedule to leave little time for anything else?

Do you provide the necessary tools to make her job efficient and manageable? Of course, we can't all afford the latest model vacuum or washing machine. But if you had to do this task yourself, would you settle for the materials you have on hand, or would you upgrade?

Is Your Child a Valued Individual?

Often times when children are given burdens beyond what they can bear, they clearly receive the message that they are not valued as individual image-bearers. They aren't loved for who they are, but for what they can provide for the family.

Their labor is needed, but their unique selves are not important.

Valuing children as unique individuals involves considering their gifts and talents, skills, interests, and time. It means considering their input when dividing up household tasks. It means working to create opportunities for them to expand their gifts (in the home or out) in areas of interest, not just arbitrarily requiring them to do what everyone else does.

And, as they show their competence, it means allowing them to have ownership over the method they use to do a particular task, or the time or order in which they complete their tasks. If your child truly does have the maturity and capability of taking on more responsibility, honor that maturity and capability by allowing them agency in their work, as much as you can within the family schedule.

Is your older teen limited or even prevented from being able to explore education and learning or employment opportunities outside of the home because they are over-burdened with parenting and care-giving responsibilities in your home? This is a good indication that the way you are managing your household is not designed or intended to launch children into healthy adulthood.

What Characterizes Relationships?

Sometimes it is appropriate for older children to watch or help younger children or to take care of something needed by a parent. But when we look at the family overall, we should see that in general, parents are the parents, children are the children, and siblings are siblings.

For example, is homeschooling mom's job, but she occasionally askes an older kid to help a younger kid with his math or do some phonics flash cards? Or is the majority of homeschooling actually falling on the shoulders of the older sibling(s)?

Is the relationship between siblings generally that of siblings, but occasionally an older child might watch a younger one while mom runs to the grocery store? Or is care and minding of younger children primarily the responsibility of the older sibling(s)? In other words, are there siblings whose relationship images more of a parent/child relationship than a sibling/sibling relationship?

Is the parent generally the one who cares for the needs of the children, working hard to see that they have the emotional and physical necessities to be safe and healthy? Or are children primarily serving the needs of the parents?

What Happens During a Family Crisis?

Sometimes families slip into (or towards) an unhealthy parentification dynamic in a time of crisis. Maybe the family finances take a hit. Maybe mom has a chronic illness or injury. Or maybe the parents divorce.

Hard times come to all families. And it can be a wonderful opportunity to grow closer together by facing hardships side by side. It's OK to ask everyone to pitch in a little more in unusual circumstances.

If mom is down with the flu, an older sibling might make spaghetti for dinner. If mom just had a baby, older kids might take turns helping with some of the laundry tasks she usually does. These are healthy examples of temporary, short-term workload adjustments to get through a tough time.

But here's the crux of the matter - just because a family comes upon a difficulty doesn't mean that children cease to be children or magically gain years of maturity in days. Asking everyone to do a little more for a short time is very different than asking children to stop being children and to parent themselves or parent their siblings indefinitely.

If you are willing to sacrifice your children's wellbeing in order to maintain an appearance, this is a red flag. Don't quell those concerns by telling yourself they are "learning valuable life lessons". Be willing to reach out for help to balance the needs of the family when the internal resources are lacking.

That might even mean considering public assistance in educating and feeding your children. As lovely as it is to be able to educate our own children, they need us to be their parents far more than they need us to be their educators. If you have to choose, choose to parent.

It also means that you need to consider carefully the impact it will have on your family if you are already stretched thin and decide to have more children. Sure, it's normal for everyone to chip in extra when mom has a new baby. But if you're extending yourself beyond what you can manage and assuming your children will fill the gaps in your availability, you are planning to fail to meet their needs.

The Parenting Skill I Was Missing

I mentioned at the opening of this article that I thought my years of babysitting and diaper changing meant that I was well-prepared to be a mom, but that I was mistaken. Don't get me wrong - I'm glad I had some solid skills under my belt.

But I distinctly remember telling my mother after my first baby was born that I didn't realize that parenting was so much more than just performing certain care tasks. The most intimidating and exhausting part of parenting was the decision-making!

Where should baby sleep? And for how long? In what position? Wearing what? What should I feel the toddler? Should he have a nap? When is bedtime? What about television or desserts? What should he wear? How should I educate him? How should I teach him to obey?

During my teen years, I had practice with certain tasks. Someone else had already made all the decisions and they outlined their expectations. I followed those expectations. I took on some of the physical labor temporarily, and that was good practice.

But the emotional burden of parenting was never mine, until I had my own children.

That's what it should look like in a healthy home where parents are wisely guiding their children in skills to prepare them for adult life, rather than thrusting adulthood on them before they are ready.

If you'd like to learn more about Parentification, here are some articles that are helpful. If you hear or read things that are familiar to you (either from your own childhood, or in your current parenting) please find a licensed therapist who can work with you to help you process past pain or unhealthy patterns.

Have you experienced parentification? Do you struggle to know what responsibilities are appropriate for the children in your home?


Lynna Sutherland is a homeschool mother of eight always-homeschooled kiddos ranging in age from high school to kindergarten. She loves to encourage parents in the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling and offer creative ways to manage a large family and a multi-age homeschool!

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