Anyone with more than one child knows a family road trip is a sure-fire way to bond while bickering. What’s more, the function of everyone’s particular roles is as evident as a sunburn on a tourist at the beach. The sibling hierarchy is unmistakable from the time we start loading up the minivan until we fight for who gets the bathroom first when we’ve reached our destination.
In our case it follows a pattern not exclusive to vacations. Nick, the oldest at 12, is always the first one out of bed and ready to get the show on the road. He hauls luggage and hoists items onto the roof rack with Dad. He makes thirteen trips to the house upon request and gives (mostly) polite directions to his younger brother and sister.
Ben, our 10-year-old middle child, has a flair for organization and, knowing his siblings will surely drive him crazy in a messy minivan, he offers to arrange the contents of the interior “just so.” His ulterior motive may be to create his very own road retreat complete with footstool (a.k.a. cooler), but it’s helpful nonetheless.
The eight-year-old Anna Kate is, well, the youngest. She makes sure she’s got her own blanket and stuffed bear and then folds herself into the car amid the chaos of packing, and simply proceeds to sit. And wait. Until the car is ready or her dad hollers specific directions to do otherwise.
So on our most recent road trip, as the kids settled into the car and their roles with customary ease, we decided to shake things up. Prompted by the question, “If you could choose to be oldest or youngest in the family, which would you rather be?” Nick and Anna Kate quickly decided they’d like to switch roles. (Ben, always content, opted to continue flourishing in the middle.)
For an entire day, as we ambled through Arches National Park, Nick took on the role of youngest, complete with occasional whining and screaming when provoked, while Anna Kate delighted in her position as oldest. She helped find the lost Gatorade in the cooler when her brother got “upset”; she was called on to help Dad lift a heavy suitcase and to run back to the hotel room for an extra towel; she showed her brother where the bathroom was and waited outside in the hot sun so he wouldn’t have to walk alone back to the visitors' center. She even got reprimanded for annoying her younger siblings.
Perhaps most intriguing, however, was the maturity she suddenly took on when we all treated her as though she were more grown-up. She liked it. She rose to the occasion and she never once reverted to the customary concerns of the pecking order.
“She’s like a different person back there,” I whispered to my husband in the front seat. “It’s like that movie, Freaky Friday, only better. And it’s Monday.” For the rest of the day we marveled at the natural wonders both outside the car and within.
All this time I guess I’ve been defining my kids by the roles they play rather than by who they really are. I don’t want to abuse my newfound knowledge, but I am certainly going to view my daughter in a different light from now on.
Then again, she’ll always be my baby.
Charla Belinski is the author of the column “Are We There Yet?” in the Glenwood (Colorado) Post Independent where she shares her common-sense style and humorous world view on parenting each week. Charla has recently completed her first novel, It Came a Fine Rain. She lives with her husband, Tim, and three children near Aspen, Colorado. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.