Siblings' roles in forming identity - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 4 Old 07-18-2014, 09:37 AM - Thread Starter
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Siblings' roles in forming identity

Our family dynamics are in flux this summer, and that's got me thinking about this issue. It seems to me that unschooled kids, since they don't have the tangibility of grade levels and age-levelled peer groups with which to orient themselves, have their identities formed to a far greater extent by their family members. Which in our case means siblings play a huge role.

I look at the schooled kids we know, and they think of themselves belonging to a certain social order based on their age and grade placement. This gives them an identity which influences their sibling relationships. Older siblings think of themselves as belonging to a category of more sophisticated, mature, knowledgeable and capable people than their little brothers or sisters. Younger siblings look at their older siblings' peer group as representing a model of their own futures. The linearity and simplicity of the school model of ages and grades gives kids an easy way of viewing their own growth as compared to their siblings'. Not that this is necessarily toxic. Not that it necessarily distances siblings from each other. I imagine that sometimes it could reduce tensions and rivalries for each child to have a clear identity that is separate from home and family. Though obviously I think there's the risk that it could create a hierarchical model between siblings: in school you get bigger and smarter and more capable each year, so the older siblings are by implication better than their younger siblings.

But with my own kids there isn't that linearity and separateness based on age. Things are much more fluid. Progress is more asynchronous, and we tend to view it through the lens of process rather than by benchmarks. And family relationships don't have to encompass the hierarchical system of age-levelled school grades.

My oldest three are quite close in age and played and learned together a lot during their formative years. Their skills and interests overlapped, and their level of mastery wasn't necessarily predicted by their age. But my youngest, born four years after her next-older sibling, was too little to be part of that world and has always been clearly younger and less capable. Yet her desire to become a part of their world has driven her to unprecedented levels of precocity. Which has I think led to a little bit of resentment ... she is, to an extent, that little sister who is always annoyingly trying to keep up. And even more annoyingly, sometimes managing to do so very well indeed.

My ds (now 17) has tended to be the hardest on her. She came to understand his dry sarcastic wit pretty young but her temperament is easy-going and resilient, so she coped very well with his subtle and not-so-subtle derisive comments. Over the past six months, though, as he's begun to form a solid idea of who he is and what his independent path will be going forth, he's been much more appreciative of her. The two of them have found comfortable sense of who they are, and their relationship has been more like a friendship than it ever was.

He's working at a museum in town this summer, and yesterday Fiona's dance instructor came through the doors for a tour. They were chatting and my ds told the dance teacher who his sister was. The teacher responded enthusiastically, and explained [off the record] that Fiona was his favourite in the class, so bright and with such a great sense of humour and always on-task and willing to help out. And it totally melted my heart to hear this. Not, I should say, to hear what the dance instructor had said about Fiona, but to hear that my ds was more proud than resentful of the impression his sister had made, proud enough to share it with me. He was clearly very pleased.

I think that being unschooled amongst siblings made my elder three very accepting of differences that fly in the face of age- and grade-levelled expectations -- or any expectations, really. I think that being an unschooled sibling has fueled my youngest's precocity but also helped make her emotionally very emotionally resilient. I think that all my kids' senses of identity (as separate from but also as related to their siblings) are more authentic and complex then they would have been if they'd been separated by age-groups and grade levels.

Those of you who also have multiple children, how do you think the dynamics between them and their formation of personal identities have been affected by the fact that they've been unschooled? In your experience is it harder but ultimately better in an unschooling family, or is it just harder, or just better, or not better at all? Or is it too early for you to really have a sense of how it will all flesh out?


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#2 of 4 Old 07-19-2014, 07:14 AM
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Originally Posted by moominmamma View Post

I think that being unschooled amongst siblings made my elder three very accepting of differences that fly in the face of age- and grade-levelled expectations -- or any expectations, really.

I see this in my kids. They talk & play with everyone no matter the age. They don't see age. They see each other as just brother and sister. They see people for whom they are.

I typing with one hand b/fing.
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#3 of 4 Old 07-19-2014, 04:13 PM
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I can't directly answer your question about how sibling children relate to each other, Miranda, as I only have one child. However I found your post very moving as I have very clear memories from my own (heavily schooled) childhood.

I was the youngest with the same sort of age gap between me and my older siblings as there is between your youngest and your older children. So I was also "clearly younger and less capable" and felt driven to try to catch up. Like your daughter also, I did happen to be precocious in something - music in this case. This was very destabilising for my older siblings. I remember overhearing one of them telling a friend on the phone, when he thought I couldn't hear, that it really bothered him that he (according to himself) could only rarely manage to play as well as me. My parents also forbade me from playing certain pieces because it bothered my siblings so much. I remember how immensely troubled and torn I was by this; I really didn't want to cause pain but music was something that called to me very deeply. I did a fair amount of hiding what I was playing, only playing when no-one was around, that kind of thing.

I think in retrospect there was a very over-competitive dynamic in the family, and I'm not sure how much to blame that on school and how much on the family context itself. In any case, unfortunately I think my siblings and I have still not really achieved much closure on this - and we're in our forties now! We're polite with each other but have extremely minimal contact. (Obviously the music isn't the only factor here; there's other stuff too, but it boils down to a basic issue of feeling threatened by each other's existence).

All this to say that it's very heartening to read that things can happen differently, even with similar starting circumstances (a much younger sibling with a talent for something that causes some resentment in older siblings). Again I'm not sure to what extent our problems stemmed from schooling as such; I think the fact that our family was so competitive was a major factor. However the schooling fitted in very tidily with my parents' philosophy and so I'm sure it did play a role too.
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#4 of 4 Old 07-19-2014, 07:50 PM
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My girls are competitive (shocking, I know--- I've never shared that before! HAHAHA!!! HAHAHAHA!!!!! ). In their play they are entirely at the same level, and I think that dd1 is annoyed because she is *older* and therefore needs to be *better*. At the same, she's quite critical of her and forgets that her sister is younger, forgets the difficulties she had at the same age. She *needs* to feel that "older=better", and while I don't encourage this in general, I recognize her need to have some activities that highlight *for her* that she does possess more mature skills and can work at a higher level because she is capable of it. Not sure what I would do if dd2 was especially precocious. I could not realistically manufacture situations that highlight the difference, nor would I. I would try to keep them working separately, though, so they don't compare at all.

DD2 for her part forgets her sister is older and that older usually translates into more mature physical skills, usually meaning less work for more progress. This frustrates her, and she also forgets what her sister did at her age.

I think unschooling has kept them closer to each other, keeping age and ability out of the picture for much of our day. But it's almost too much. It swings almost too far the other way for my girls' temperaments. I almost feel like school would satisfy their need to have separate achievements. But could I keep grades and other awards out of the picture? Impossible. School might eventually make things worse because it highlights and records every move, never letting you forget. So, maybe unschooling protects us more than I know.

It's sweet that your son was able to react the way he did. It gives me hope. DD1 has many traits that your son had, that you've posted in the past about, so it's good to see a positive transition.

"She is a mermaid, but approach her with caution. Her mind swims at a depth most would drown in."
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