CC image courtesy of Flickr, Eduardo Sánchez
by Eleanor Skelton, HA editorial team
Growing up homeschooled means you get a lot more time with your siblings than other kids. As an older sibling, it also means you have much more responsibility for them.
My parents told me I didn’t need friends, I had my siblings. They also told me I was the example for them, the prototype.
This set the pattern for some unhealthy dynamics. My first counselor after moving out said my dad’s insisting our only friends being immediate family members was incredibly codependent. Libby Anne writes about being an older child instructed to spank her younger siblings.
Parents expecting more of older siblings is typical in secular culture, but not usually with the same connotations like in fundamentalist homeschooling. As the oldest in my family, I heard things like:
A good older sibling sets the example for their younger brothers and sisters. Even if you don’t think they look up to you, they do. They watch your every move, and often, they’ll try to walk in your footsteps. So it’s important that you behave in ways that set a good example for them. Just like we look to Jesus to be our example, that we look to live how he lived and behave like he behaved, our younger siblings often look to us that way, too. —Taken from Christian Teen About
Statements like this put an excessive amount of pressure on older children.
We’re not just expected to protect younger siblings from danger, we’re responsible for their eternal salvation. And fundamentalist parents often manipulate this idea to check rebellion. To squash any behavior they didn’t like.
I couldn’t get angry if Dad was controlling and demanding, because that wasn’t having a meek and quiet spirit. Suffering without complaint was more like Christ, I was told, and a better example.
If I wore a fitted sweater, I was not being an example of modesty to my sister.
When I asked to have a curfew of midnight instead of 7:30 p.m. in college, I was not demonstrating submission to authority for my siblings.
My mom often said: “What will your little brother and sister think? They are always watching you. You know what Jesus said about those who lead little children astray. It would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck.”
So when Dad said things that hurt, when the house felt like a cage, when I thought of running away in the middle of the night, I didn’t. Because of my siblings. I was responsible for them.
When I thought my parents punished my brother and sister unfairly, I’d try to anger them into spanking me instead.
Junior year of college, I moved out because my parents said the alternative would be transferring to Bob Jones University. I went back and forth, uncertain what my decision would mean for my brother and sister. I’d be the first to leave home.
I told my professors that I wanted to be a good example for my siblings, that I didn’t want to run away or rebel if it would hurt them, that I’d go to Bob Jones if I had to, even if it killed me.
They told me that I could be a good example by moving out, that I could show my siblings that freedom was possible.
But I worried. I knew I couldn’t live at home anymore, but I still wanted to be a good big sister. That fall, I struggled to set limits as my parents barraged me with visits and phone calls, begging me to reconsider.
A couple of classmates, both named Cynthia, asked me what was wrong after one of our Saturday writers’ group meetings.
I gave my fears a voice. I didn’t understand taking care of yourself before helping other people. Fundamentalism taught me the reverse: don’t be selfish, sacrifice everything for others. Shouldn’t I just put up with my parents’ behavior for the sake of my siblings?
One of the Cynthias looked at me and the other Cynthia. She said, “Are you familiar with New Life’s teaching about confronting lies that you’ve believed? You identify the lie, you replace it with truth, and you pray against the power of the lie. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself for your siblings. You’re free to make your own choices.”
They each laid hands on me, praying with me that I’d heal and live in freedom.
I can’t save my siblings. All I can do is be a good human.
My little sister is going to BJU, and my little brother is a serious, quiet teenage boy. I lost contact with them for two years after leaving, so I can’t just speak my truth to them openly.
All I can do is be there and listen.