Equity Among Brothers And Sisters
( Originally Published 1916 )
IT is bad enough to be the youngest; and it is bad enough to be the only boy—or the only girl. But the combination of the two handicaps is in many house-holds quite insurmountable.
Father was glancing at the papers while waiting for his son to join him for their Sunday morning walk. Presently he noticed that he had read more of the paper than he had expected to, and looked at his watch. The delay was unusually long, and he called to William. William's voice came back, sobbing, " They won't dress me!"
Father did not like that. He went right to the children's quarters to see what it all meant. The oldest sister spoke up. She thought that William, aged seven, was quite old enough to dress himself, and he wouldn't even try. The silence and the expressions on the faces of the other sisters suggested a conspiracy. This would never do. Father pronounced final judgment. " A boy who has three older sisters ought to be able to get help when he had to be dressed, and not be neglected." William had to be dressed at once, and the girls would see to it that the task was accomplished with neatness and dispatch.
To have the opportunity to look after younger brothers or sisters is no, doubt of great value to any girl. And to be obliged to dress William through all those years must have been an education for the girls. But it is certain that whatever they gained was more than counterbalanced by the boy's loss. And it is also certain that the experience and " discipline " that the girls gained were counterbalanced by the resentment and sense of injustice which they developed, as William became old enough—at least in their judgment—to relieve them of the responsibility.
William was no less a victim of circumstances than his sisters. It was his fate to be the youngest—and the only boy.
But every child is unique, if not in one way then in another. And so every child is likely to derive advantages from his peculiarities, as well as to be handicapped by them. The older of two brothers was of the " accommodating " kind. A neighbor said of Charles that he " always gave in before and after." By this she meant that he always did what he could to avoid friction in advance and that when any altercation arose, he was then ready to make further concessions and yield. He would not let his preferences stand in the way of peace. This trait was so marked that whenever trouble did arise, it was quite natural for Henry to receive the blame. But later it became possible for Charles, in his quiet way, to make trouble, in the certainty that Henry would be blamed.
It is quite proper for us to recognize the fact that the children are not alike, and to take the differences into consideration in our judgments and in our treatment of them. But we must not let our classification of children stand in the way of substantial justice.
It is quite probable that Henry was the trouble-maker nine times out of ten; and an understanding of Charles' disposition was very helpful to the parents. But each case, as it arises, should be considered on its merits, and not on the earlier generalization that Henry is usually at fault.
The action of parents, like all movement in the world, is along the line of least resistance. And the generalizations we make about our children furnish channels that are often helpful, but occasionally dangerous. So it happened that Helen, whom everyone knew to be noisy and aggressive, often suffered for her reputation. One day her mother heard her nervous voice, berating Edward, while the children were at the edge of the water. She could also see the blade of an oar raised menacingly in the air. Of course Helen was up to some mischief, and was abusing Edward. The mother started for the shore. in the interests of peace and justice. But when she came near enough she saw that the quiet and unobtrusive Edward was the real aggressor. He held out his foot to indicate where Helen was to land her boat; and as the boat did not strike exactly in the indicated spot, he would shove it out again. This he repeated several times, until Helen was exasperated beyond self-control. The mother admitted later that had she not seen the performance herself, she would have considered Helen responsible for the friction, without regard to the girl's pleas in extenuation.
In the distribution of the tasks and responsibilities of a household among the children, there will necessarily be inequalities, on account of differences in age and strength, and also on account of divergent interests. Some children are more obliging than others, and at one stage the child is more eager to go on errands than he will be later. It is perfectly legitimate to allow such inequalities. But we must not let the less obliging child take advantage of the more helpful brother or sister; he needs to do his share of the work even more than the work needs to be done. Nor must we allow him to evade his tasks through subterfuge, or through persistent refusals. Let George do it, if he will, for he likes it and it is worth his while. But do not let the others defraud themselves by leaving too much to George.
The education of the child in ideals of equity must come in large measure from the give and take of his relations with other children, whether in the home or outside. But this must be supplemented with the pervasive influence of sympathetic, yet detached judgment of older persons.