Are the Oldest ‘Surrogate Parents’?

A mom posted her thoughts: “I think the problem that society has with this issue with large families is when it seems as if the children are raising themselves – the older children acting as surrogate parents to the younger ones.”

Wendy and I have heard this before. The idea is that the oldest children in families end up doing the job of the parents. Critics of large families witness the oldest help out with children, change diapers, wash dishes, essentially doing more than the little ones. They then judge that the oldest are, in reality, “acting as surrogate parents.” The parents, they reason, should be taking care of their children, and the older ones should be — I don’t know — running around with their friends, I suppose.

This perspective is misguided. We hang with a lot of other large families, and we don’t see older children treated like “surrogate parents.” Critics see large families working together and assess, “Gee, the older children didn’t get to live the secluded, self-absorbed life I got to live,” then judge that they must be secretly miserable. Reality in a large family is different.

I will be skiing today at Monarch with a group of homeschool families. I’ll be hanging at the bunny hill with Josiah, Hannah, and Keilah while the rest (Cynthia, Lydia, Isaiah, Micah, Noah, Tabitha) will ski off to the tougher hills. The older ones will come and give me a break so that I can enjoy a few blues myself. This has been our routine when we go on our yearly skiing trip. Is this wrong?

I don’t think so. It’s life in a big family. We’re going to have a ball together.

About Chris Jeub

Chris is the father of 16 children, busily running the family businesses and learning the depths of love along the way.

  • Tammie E.

    I commonly hear from family that my childen should not be raising the younger ones and should be out doing what teens “do” today … we have six children ranging in ages from 19 – 5 months .. and they are assigned a “buddy” to have slight repsonsibility over. This includes making sure they brush thier teeth, help them clean up or make thier beds.. teach them things here and there or help them out. I FIRMLY believe that it has not only made my children more responsible for thier lives ahead of them, but it has also made them all good friends as well as less selfish people. They know how to think of others before themselves. (Not to mention they don’t want to DO what other teens “DO” today anyway.) So, when I get words from my family or friends of how rediculous my husband and I are for our way of life that we have chosen, I simply reply,” I sure wouldn’t do it ANY other way” ! :)

    Blessings !!!

    • Peggy

      You know what teens “do” today? Drink, smoke, do drugs, have sex, and party. Apparently “normal” parents prefer their teenagers do this instead of learning how to become an adult as they should be doing.

      • Heather in MN

        I have two teens and they and their friends don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, have sex or party. In fact, they work part time jobs, do volunteer work, and participate in church activities. They (gasp!) attend public school where they earn As and Bs, play sports, and serve on the Student Council. Your statement is akin to saying “All homeschool moms are long haired, denim jumper wearing, legalists who think it’s a sin to watch TV.” Pretty broad brush you’re painting with.

        • momto4

          Agree Heather!

        • Peggy

          Let me clarify a bit here. No I did not mean all teens, that would just be silly and ignorant to say that all teens are doing these things. I am 23 so I was just in this teenage role a few years ago, and I know that my parents do not know even 10% of the things I did. I went to public school, worked a full time job, was in choir and band, got A’s and B’s, and yet felt pressured to smoke, drink, have sex, and go to parties in order to be a “normal” teen. Mistakes I regret to this day. But my parents were none the wiser. I was always at a sleepover or going bowling or even after I got off of work at midnight I would go out afterwords and my parents would never know. There is just SO much pressure out there for teenagers to rebel in order to be part of the “in” crowd. Many of the teens at these parties were the good kids who volunteered and worked and got straight A’s. We weren’t bad kids. We were just doing things that we shouldn’t have been.
          My parents came home from work and watched TV and cleaned the house and took care of everything at home while I was free to go out and do what teens “do”. Now looking back, I wish they had not only spent more time with me, but I wish I had been forced to stay home and learn all the things that running a home involves. I wish I had been forced to stay home more often and take care of my younger brother and clean the house and learn how to do all the things adults need to know how to do. It was nice to be able to do what I wanted to do as a teenager, but I never learned what I needed to do as an adult.
          My opinion did come off as a bit harsh and I apologize, I do not mean all teens are like this. I just know from my own experiences. I just had a baby girl who is 2 months old now and I’m terrified of her going out and having those kinds of pressures I had. I’d much rather if she could learn what a real family is like and have responsibilities and stay out of trouble. Not that she probably will (lol) but it’s all I can hope for and try to teach her there are more important things in life than such negative things.

          • Roddma

            These are all normal parts of growing up please do not confine her to the house. It shows you do not trust them. I have seen too many run wild after growing up strict just as not enough rules. You can only reel them in to a point. I can understand keeping close watches on preteens but sooner or later the reigns need to be loosened a little. I was the opposite of you peggy, I wish I had more experience socially. If you raise good kids they will resist temptations As I say a balance of responsibility and pleasure

            • Peggy

              Good point Roddma! I knew a family of preacher’s kids and their parents were very strict with them and at least a couple of them grew up and rebelled and went out and did crazy things just because the reins were so tight. I think a nice balance of freedom and responsibility is necessary.

      • Jenna

        Seriously? You are kidding right? I am sure some teens do those things, but ALL teens? Because that is what you are saying, right? None of them, especially in public school, can possibly be good kids who love their families, spend time with friends, compete in sports, volunteer for various charities?

      • Jenna

        I also, like Heather, happen to have two awesome teens who are public schooled. they are honor roll students, active in soccer and other sports, but are NOT being forced to give up everything they love to raise kids that they did not create. They are allowed to have sleepovers, go to movies, play sports, bowl, and yet they love to spend time with their family as well. They are NOT drinking, doing drugs, or having sex. You need to think a little before you insult an entire group of people as basically useless and stupid. Honestly.

        • Roddma

          amen jenna judge not ye be not judged helping out is one thing but no forced into mini adulthood to free up the parent’s time The younger kids wont have this responsibility which the parents o mega families forget. A nice balnace is needed All work and no play makes John a dull man.

          • Roddma

            And Tammie teens can learn responsibility in other ways like a part time job It doesnt need to involve siblings all the time

    • Jenna

      Yes. Your way of parenting is obviously the ONLY way to raise good kids. Duh! And what exactly do teens DO today? Because my teens volunteer, play soccer, play basketball, get honor roll grades, go bowling, to movies, help around the house, have sleepovers… are these things what you are referring to when you say you don’t want your kids doing what other teens these days do?

  • Heather Nations

    I agree! I think another problem is that many people are taught (maybe not directly) that all you need to do as a parent is feed, clothe, and diaper them. Parents should be doing much more than this! I would say the most tiring part of being a parent is the emotional work it takes. I think people see older siblings helping out with the younger ones by changing diapers, getting snacks, etc and they associate those things with parenting when it is so much more than that!

  • Heather in Ohio

    My third daughter shares a room with my fifth daughter. Lately at night they’ve been shutting their bedroom door and talking quietly together (usually everyone begs to sleep with their doors open). After about three nights, my fifth daughter said “Emma’s been teaching me to read. First she made sure I knew all my consonant and short vowel sounds, and now she’s teaching me long vowel sounds and diphthongs.”

    I should probably put the kibosh on that… isn’t teaching my job as a parent? (or…oops… maybe I should leave teaching to the teachers?? LOL)

    My oldest daughters friends can’t stand being around kids. They’re not used to it! Yet my oldest daughter adores hanging out with her younger siblings, and I know she’ll go into marriage PREPARED to take care of babies! How many young moms today complain about not being able to handle sleepless nights or temper tantrums? Yet my 19 year old could handle those like a 20 year parenting veteran…. by my example. SHE feels sorry for her baby sisters, because they likely won’t have baby sisters to cuddle when they are teens. But I assured her I’d send them over to her place to cuddle her babies. :)

    I can assure you, I’ve given my teens the choice to go out with their friends and do crazy things. They actually PICK staying home and having fun with their family!

  • Bnteasley

    LOVE this article! Even my Amy ( 5 1/2) adores taking care of Sarah (1), and promptly plays sad when I take “her baby” away for a change or to put her to bed! It’s natural for them if you raise them in a family-centered, selfless environment. Children often mimic what they see in their parents, and if they see me taking care of their younger siblings and they mimic me in doing so, I couldn’t be prouder! It teaches them to be responsible, self-controlled, selfless, and compassionate. The fruits of the Spirit in action. :-)

  • Wwplear

    I think if you want a big family than have a big family…if you want a small family than have a small one, but whatever you do, treat them each with love and respect! We are to train them up to be all that God would have them to be as individuals! Communication with the willingness to listen is key! You will know if your child is not wanting to help. We know our children far better than others. It’s when we use our children for our own selfish gain that we hurt them. Enjoy your big families…we have 6 and sometimes I wished we had more and sometimes I think parenting is very challenging. But the one thing is for sure…I love them all and thank God for these blessings! I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and look forward to seeing what they do for the kingdom! We have to keep our eyes fixed and know what He has called us (each individual family and person)too! It is a high calling to raise a big family now, so I commend all the big families!

  • JenT

    Great article.

  • Emily

    I think in some large families the older children act as surrogate parents and in other they do not. For that matter, in some small families the oldest child is a surrogate parent. I would object to the oldest children taking over the majority of the care of their youngest children. There is nothing wrong with a child doing the dishes, making an occasional meal etc. However, in some large families you see the parents act more as family managers and the children as employees. The parents delegate all the household chores, ie meals, dishes, laundry, diaper changing, care of the children, to the oldest children while they just oversee the operation.
    I realized that this is not in every large family nor is it in most of them.
    My guideline would be if I child could not go somewhere because they are “needed at home” then that is wrong. Also, personally I would draw the line at changing diapers and feeding babies.

  • Mamaforhim

    You mean the older children should not be left alone in their rooms to plug into MTV and show their faces just for mealtimes ? My goodness you are sooo hard-nosed! ( heeeheeee….)

    I have to try to not envy you and the rest of the large families who have that wonderful built-in help with younger kids….

    I am one of those who was not blessed with a husband until I was 30, so all of our kids will be little together and big big spans here…. tick, tick, tick……

  • Katie

    I think there is a balance…a little responsibility is a good thing but too much is burdensome. They already have responsibility to grow up, do school work, make friends, etc. I was the oldest girl of 5 children and I did think I had too much responsibility because my mom was single and worked full-time and I could not go out and “do things” because I always had to be home with my siblings. It was a tough situation but I did learn from it, the biggest thing I wanted to tell my mom was teach the younger kids to be responsible too. Now as a mom it is tempting to ask my oldest to do more because she does it right the first time without a lot of help, but I have to keep reminding myself that even my 2 year old needs to learn to pick up her own toys, bring mommy a burp rag etc. She loves to help out too!! As for changing diapers and feeding the baby…I do not ask my children to do that but they would love to try!

  • Mamaforhim

    My daughter can change diapers at age 7…last year, my son ( about 2,5) had a poopy diaper. Well my hands were full of something else ( like raw hamburger) and dd topld me he was stinky.
    I replied that I needed to get the meatloaf in the pan and wash my hands before I could get to that.

    By the time that was done, she was back downstairs to tell me she did it herself! No mess either!

    So, I say… don’t put that job on them all the time, but if they offer to do it, don’t turn them down.
    Of course my dd didn’t offer–she just did it.

    Now if she could just offer to keep her room clean on a consistent basis….