Should their kids help ‘parent’ twins on the way?

The family therapist recommended the 6- and 8-year-old act as helpers when the new babies arrive.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

I learned recently that my ex-husband and his new wife are expecting twins. He and I share a daughter, 6, and a son, 8, who already see less of him than we would like because of his demanding work schedule. My ex is a notoriously poor multitasker and I am deeply worried about how the arrival of these new babies will impact my kids’ relationship with him — and the new wife, whom they’re still just getting used to.

Our family therapist has recommended guiding the kids to see themselves as helpers when the new babies arrive, but they are still so young that I hate for them to take this on as an assignment.

Any suggestions? I am trying to keep my feelings out of it, but this will also really change my role as the co-parent of the only children involved, and therefore the adults’ shared highest priority.

— Worried

Yes, your children are still so young, so I see your hesitation about their “assignment” — but don’t share it. I think your family therapist gave you an excellent suggestion.

Of course it needs to be judiciously applied — I’ve seen older sibs under 10 get conscripted into co-parent-level minding of younger sibs, and watched the resentment bloom from there, and it comes with profound emotional damage. But a 6- and 8-year-old can get so much out of an age-appropriate helper role.

For one, it puts them at the center of the family and not the fringes. And, being helpful is an enormous source of confidence; if your kids clean their rooms and clear dishes and sweep floors, as a skill- and confidence builder and an investment in family cooperation, then there’s no reason to see age-appropriate baby care as any different.

And, maybe most important, there’s something you presumably know as a parent: Caregiving is intimate and, when it’s well enough shared not to be overwhelming, it’s a way of bonding with someone for which there is no substitute. If your children are reading stories to their new sibs, or helping out at feeding time, or wiping little faces, then they’re investing in their young siblings and creating a history.

More connections, more love.

Your feelings are understandably complex, but the delegation of minor baby chores to your kids doesn’t have to be; as long as it is, again, kept within age-appropriate boundaries, it can be simple.

Since you’re already working on this with a therapist, I suggest using parts of your sessions along the way to figure out ways to encourage helping without “assigning” it or overdoing a good thing. And ways to keep the management of more kids — it will be more complicated for you in scheduling terms alone, there’s no avoiding that — from metastasizing into resentment of those kids. Your kids’ immediate family is getting bigger, and offering the possibility of more connections, more history, more love. Please try to stay focused on that.

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