Why I'm Harder On My Older Child

by Christine Organ
parenting and discipline
skynesher/iStock Photo

My oldest son has been complaining lately that I’m harder on him than his brother. He points out that when his younger brother commits a similar offense, I let him off easier. I give his younger brother more warnings and fewer actual consequences. I look the other way more often. I let a lot of shit go.

And he’s right. I’m calmer, more laid-back, and less strict with my younger son than my older son. My older son gets sent to his room more often, loses privileges more often, and generally bears the brunt of my wrath when I lose my shit over their bickering and whining. He is absolutely right — I am harder on him.

But what he doesn’t yet understand is that there is a reason I am harder on him. There are several reasons actually. The most obvious reason I’m harder on my oldest child is because he’s, well, older. At 6 and 9 years old, the significance of their age gap is shrinking enough that they enjoy the same things, they misbehave in the same way, and they get on each other’s nerves and fight in the same way. But because my oldest son is three years older, I expect his behavior to be three years better. I expect him to know not to drop the F-bomb at the playground, to control his anger, and to sit still for 15 freaking minutes to do his homework each night.

Is it reasonable to expect more of my older son? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s the reality. I don’t just want my kids to not be assholes; I want them to be good and kind and compassionate humans. And so I set a fairly high bar when it comes to their behavior. But that doesn’t mean those standards are always reasonable or practical. This parenting gig is a learn-as-you-go venture and, over time, I’ve realized what is worthy of a swift (metaphorical) kick in the ass and I’ve also learned to let some shit go (because kids do a whole lot of ridiculous shit).

The other reason I’m harder on my oldest son is because he sets an example. My older son might not realize it, but he has the ability to set the tone for those around him, especially his younger brother. His personality is magnetic, a natural leader, and his younger brother watches — and follows — just about everything he does. When he is calm, everyone around him is calm. When he’s rambunctious, the house looks a lot like a frat house at midnight on a Saturday night. When he’s acting like an asshole, assholery runs rampant. They are both wild and impulsive little boys and their mischief can escalate rather quickly when they try to go toe to toe in their escapades. By corralling my older son’s behavior, it usually impacts my younger son’s behavior as well. Two birds with one stone and all that.

None of this means that I love my older son any less or that I’m “playing favorites” — on the contrary, in fact. Parenting different children means parenting them differently. What works for one child might not work for the other, and vice versa. Loving our children equally doesn’t mean treating them the same. They are different children with different needs, different strengths, and different weaknesses. It is our job as parents to do whatever we can to meet those needs, draw out their strengths, and help them manage their weakness. And sometimes that means being harder on one child (at least in the eyes of the child).

As an oldest sibling myself, I understand how much it can suck when you are held to impossibly high standards, when the rules don’t bend, and when you get punished more harshly for minor infractions. But I also understand why this happens. My mom likes to joke that they should have paid me to be their child for all the mistakes they made. I just laugh. It’s no secret that my parents were much stricter with me than my younger siblings, but it doesn’t bother me. I get it. With each child, they were simply loving and parenting in the best way possible given what they knew at the time. As am I. As are we all.

And one day, when my son is older and possibly even has kids of his own, he’ll understand that all of it always came from a place of love.