I see her in almost every large family that happens to have a daughter as their first-born child. She is mature and well-spoken for her age. She is kind and responsible, efficient and organized. She takes on the task of being her mother's helper, folding laundry, washing dishes and watching over younger siblings.
She feels the importance of her position in the family, and enjoys the near-adult status this gives her, very early on. At the age of 12, she knows perfectly well how to clean a house, iron a shirt, diaper a baby and bake an excellent challah.
This girl is a blessing to her parents, and doubtless she is acquiring many important skills that will help her in her future home. However, there is also a risk - a risk that the mother, especially the mother of an extra-large family with all its burdens and chores, will come to rely on the eldest daughter too much and too early.
Now, I think it's excellent training for adulthood to give children age-appropriate responsibilities. My daughters know they are in charge of tidying up their room. They know they are responsible for keeping important art work stashed in appropriate files. They realize that if they take a book to read or look at, they have to return it to its proper place later.
So what do I mean, exactly, when I talk of relying on the eldest daughter too much? How early is too early? Often the answer isn't clear-cut. But I believe it is undesirable when:
- an eldest daughter has very limited time for age-appropriate activities, such as playing, reading for pleasure, pursuing hobbies, or even simply quiet time for reflection and dreaming, because household chores and childcare are being heaped upon her.
- household chores and taking care of younger siblings are hampering a girl's academic success (as in, an important math assignment goes undone because the young girl has to cook dinner for the family).
- a pattern is created when the eldest girl is expected to always act more mature and responsible than her siblings, even taking age difference into account. As in, when she was 10 she was expected to do the dishes every night, but when her younger sister reaches 10 years, no such responsibility is given her.
- the eldest daughter is expected to take up the slack when her siblings shift away from responsibility - as in, she picks up after her siblings, sorts their laundry, etc, even when they are developmentally capable of doing these things for themselves.
A child is a child, and needs time to be a child, even if she is the eldest of numerous children. This is so very, very important to remember, even though it's incredibly tempting to allow a girl who is kind, obedient, and responsible to take up the lion's share of household chores.
Note: I am specifically talking about girls, because it happens more often that a daughter becomes a mother's helper. However, I'm not saying it can't happen that an older boy is given a disproportionate number of chores compared to his older siblings.
Naturally, the older children will pitch in and help more often and more efficiently than younger children. But in a well-functioning family, everyone does their share. Otherwise it's an unfair and unhealthy pattern. It is unfair to the child who gets heaped up with too many chores, and it's unfair to the other children, who grow up thinking it's OK to let others work for them.
I have decided to write about it after observing several families who have (without even noticing it, I am sure) fallen into such a pattern, of heaping up too much responsibility on the eldest daughter (or daughters), as well as talking to several women who were elder daughters in large families, and report feeling overwhelmed, burdened, even taken advantage of, as they were growing up. This, later on, made them delay marriage and limit their number of children - that is, after growing up in a large family, they didn't want a large family for themselves.
In my own home, I feel I have the budding personality of just such a girl - mature, eager to help, responsible. That's fantastic, but when Shira (age 7) offers to pick up after her younger sister, or mop up somebody else's spills, I say no. No, because it isn't fair or just to have her do it, when everyone should do what they reasonably can to pitch in and keep the home running smoothly.