Big Sister Nerves!
June 30, 2010 6:31 PM   Subscribe

Big Sister/Little Sister Program Filter: First outing with my "little sister" tonight, and I feel a little nervous or ...something.. about the whole experience so far...

This is my first time in the program. "Beth" is 11. I've met her twice, first time in introductions and tonight was our first time out together. I really like Beth, she's very smart, we have alot in common, and I think we can become really good friends over time. I just don't know if I'm in a sort of shock of going into a situation where I'm hanging with a totally strange kid and now I have to know how to respond "correctly" or what. I am sure she's nervous, too! Am I just overthinking this whole thing? I just keep thinking that I want to get it right, do the right thing, not screw up and therefore permanently scar her forever!

I've been on a "waiting list" for 2 years before I got matched. I grew up practically raising two nieces as if they were my little sisters. So, it's not like I don't know how little girls are, but, at the same time, it's like....i HAVE NO IDEA how little girls are! All I keep thinking about is making sure we have a fun time, someone for her to confide in when and if needed, and that I am basically "there" for her.

Admittedly, I found myself feeling a bit uneasy/nervous on both meetings so far because I don't know how to respond or react to some of her comments or actions, which are probably perfectly normal for a kid. I know it's silly, but I couldn't believe how nervous I was! I had her pick a resturant for our first outing so we can just talk and get to know each other before we start going out and playing, plus i wanted to celebrate her end-of-year completion, which was today. She picked Red Lobster (not cheap, not most expensive...), wanted to order some extra shrimp appetizers to have some to take home to her little brother and sister. I honestly panicked because i didn't know how to handle it! I'm thinking how much I dont' want to let this kid down for anything, but at the same time, I'm thinking, "i'm not paying for the entire family"! I was racking my brain, thinking, "man, I have to basically say "no" to her on our first outing, and at first i said "well, why don't we just think about ordering food that we can finish here...?" and i thought "my gawd, that was lame!" But was it? I let her go ahead and order the jumbo shrimp apps, ok, so what this first time, right? So, I don't want to let her run all over me if given the chance, because I know kids will do that, too! Basically: how do I say no to a girl who doesn't really know me, or I know her? How do I, for instance, tell her to stop playing with her crab legs for an hour, in a friendly, I'm-not-trying-to-replace-your-mother kind of way? Or am I supposed to let her play with the crab legs for an hour? When she says she tells her little sister she will "kill her if she gets in her stuff", do I have to say "now, now, don't say 'kill'..."? Are those the things i'm supposed to say? it's such a parent-y thing to say....

Anyway, I think my point is, is this normal nerves for starting out with a little? I mean, here are two complete strangers, sort of working on being BFFs! All I want to happen is for me to be a good mentor and friend, and really have some fun along the way with her! Will my nervousness diminish? Once again, maybe I am overthinking it and need to just relax. I'd love to hear about similar stories and experiences. There's a post about the program and experiences from around 2007, I believe, on here that I have already read. Anything new out there?

Thanks very much!
posted by foxhat10 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A few responses from ARSOTI (a random stranger on the internet) --

Beth is not your niece, and your experiences with your nieces may not be relevant.

You likely will not scar, or have the power to scar, Beth.

I (personally) would have given Beth a couple of restaurant choices rather than the whole field of choices -- Red Lobster is pretty expensive (and not very good, but that's another AskMe).

Saying "no" to food to take home is fine, especially with the $$ of Red Lobster.

I (personally) would not care about the crab legs or the "kill" word. Maybe if it bothers you say, "Kill? That's not very nice." Or "Ya gonna eat those crab legs?"

You're just a person, Beth's another person. Beth's probably had a pretty different life from yours (well, actually, I don't know that). Programs like BB/BS market themselves (understandably) as changing lives, but really you're just one person trying to make another person's life a little better. Maybe lives will be changed, maybe not. Just take it step at a time, and try to keep your expectations modest.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:02 PM on June 30, 2010

I vote for avoiding the issue altogether. Restaurant trips are a "treat," but aren't something she needs to expect when she hangs out with you - Not that she's going to be in charge of her own finances for a while, but eating out frequently is not a great habit to establish. Instead, I suggest planning a picnic with her. Ask her what her favorite juice, snack, and sandwich would be, pack a lunch for both of you, and head on out.
posted by lizzicide at 7:09 PM on June 30, 2010

I just keep thinking that I want to get it right, do the right thing, not screw up and therefore permanently scar her forever!

Calm down, you're over-thinking things. Don't worry about what you're "supposed" to do to shape this kid, just have fun. If you obsess about every decision and what impact it's going to have on her, it's not going to be very fun for you or her. Besides, kids are pretty resilient... It's not like she's going to shatter into a million pieces if you don't say the exact right thing.

I would focus on having some good times with her and building up a rapport; the rest will come naturally.
posted by Menthol at 7:12 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

With kids you can smooth over lots of things with indulgent laughter. Not as if you're making fun of her, but as if she's just said something really cutely naive. Be playful and casual -- it's pretty easy to seem witty to someone that age.

She: "I want to order some extra shrimp appetizers to take home to my little brother and sister!"

You: *Indulgent chuckle* "I may seem like a total grownup to you, but I'm not made of money! Besides, isn't this time supposed to be just for us to enjoy?"
posted by hermitosis at 7:16 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a mom of three and neighbor to a needy, not-well-supervised kid who comes to my house and asks me for stuff a lot, I would like to encourage you to stop fretting. You don't need to figure it out all at once. You'll settle in and get more comfortable.

With our neighbor, I have sometimes felt bad about sending him home when we have dinner. "Ooh, you're having pizza, can I stay and have some too?" There have been other times I've had to set a boundary--he wasn't interested in what my two sons were doing, for instance, and asked me if he could go into my bedroom to play a video game in there. Um, no. First, it's my bedroom. Second, if you're not hanging out with the boys, don't be here--I'm not your babysitter, I'm your friends' mom. Not that I said those words out loud--just that those are the lines I've drawn.

He has taken it really well. He likes it if he gets to stay for pizza once in awhile, but goes home happily enough if not. I think he has a bit of a "might as well try for it" attitude. When I say No to him about something, he just shrugs cheerfully--although it took a few tries for "you have to go now because it's the boys' bedtime" to stick; he argued a few times.

So, it's sweet that your little sister is thinking about her siblings. It's also totally reasonable for you to not buy food for anyone who's not at the table, unless you want to. It's also OK for you to buy extra shrimp for her sibs if you have some extra cash and want to honor that nice impulse on her part. You get to choose, and you get to choose differently this time than next time, and she'll be OK with it. Our neighbor is. We took him out for tacos last week, but he's been perfectly cheerful not to allowed to come along for chinese food and pizza.

Sometimes kids who aren't well-supervised (I don't know if this is the case with your little sister, but it seems to be true of our neighbor) test the boundaries a lot. I'm a real non-authoritarian mom to my kids, and I say yes to them as much as I can. But honestly I think my neighbor kid needs some structure, somebody who's paying attention and will say No to him sometimes. I not only think it's OK for me to draw some lines and not give him everything he asks for when he's here (even if I feel petty about it sometimes--really, why couldn't he stay for pizza tonight? Well, I already had one extra kid and didn't want another, that's all, and that's good enough), I think it's good for him. I don't feel like I've said that very clearly.

As far as wanting to kill her sister and stuff like that--I wouldn't fret about it. If your goal is to be a person she can talk to, let her talk and don't criticize how she does it. You might find How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk helpful. The authors would probably suggest non-commital responses like, "hmmm," or reflecting back like, "it makes you mad when your sister does that, huh?" Open-ended, not lecturing, inviting additional talking.

Re: playing with crab legs for an hour. Let her, unless you really need to get going. In which case say something like, "we should get going soon, so if you're going to eat those you should get to work on them."

And yes, your nerves are normal. When this kid started showing up at my door, and it was clear that he'd spend every waking minute with us if he could, I freaked a little. But it has worked out fine.
posted by not that girl at 7:20 PM on June 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

I agree with the above comments. My "little" doesn't understand cost or prices yet, so I'm always getting pushed to do fairly expensive things (ice skating when we both need to rent skates, or a trip to the movies, etc). It's hard to say no, especially when you're trying to connect with the kid. Setting budgets for our outings has worked okay. While my little doesn't understand that the waterpark is expensive, when I tell her we only have $10 that day and the waterpark is $16, she kind of gets it.

It's nerve-wracking being in BB/BS. My experience hasn't been entirely pleasant thus far (I'm about 4 months in and can't foresee extending my commitment beyond the year that I signed up for). I don't click well with my kid and I think she's a bit too young (just turned 8). But kids are pretty blunt. They'll tell you what they think, and yours is old enough to help suggest activities or plan excursions, which will help a lot. It should get a bit easier in time.

I know you didn't ask for this, but activities that have worked really well for us have been baking (and I send her home with part of the batch of cookies or cupcakes for her family), picnics (we go to the grocery store together and pick out our food), and second-run movies (which are usually really cheap).
posted by JannaK at 7:25 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best advice I have is to treat her much like you would any other of your friends. Of course, don't let her order a beer or drive your car, but in conversation, treat her as a friend. If a friend of yours said she was going to kill someone, you'd probably say something like, "wow, that sounds really frustrating," or possibly "so then what did you do?" If a friend mentioned wanting to order extra food for other people on your dime, you'd probably tell her that you couldn't really pony up to pay for other people. You likely would not give a friend lessons on table manners, even if you thought she was doing something rude. Your little sister is younger than you are, but she's just a regular person, so treat her much the same way you would anyone else.

She has parents and teachers and other authority figures in her life to tell her what to do. You can just be that cool older person who is her friend and treats her like her life and her decisions matter.
posted by decathecting at 7:25 PM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Random thoughts:
Kids aren't really as meta as adults are - they don't tend to think about 'how things seem' when they're interacting. So don't sweat your interactions.

I'd avoid choosing activities that involve spending too much money. You really want to avoid defining the relationship as you buying stuff for her. Focus on low cost/no cost stuff and that will help. Like going to the park, going to the library... Often the Big Sisters will have suggestions for places that do two for one, which would let you pay for yourself and she can go for free. But keep money as out of the equation as you can.

The fact that she's wanting to bring food back for her sibs is not really that unusual in these situations - it's likely she comes from a family where there's not a lot of money/food and this is her chance to help them out. That doesn't make it your job to do so though. You set some boundaries up front, and that's the right thing to do.
posted by drmarcj at 7:27 PM on June 30, 2010

I mentor a six-year-old through our foster care system. The extra food thing is normal; we're pretty much under an absolute mandate to say "no." The kids and parents have to sign a contract where they promise they won't ask, actually, which was a little weird - a then-five-year-old, signing a contract in kindergarten-style lettering. I was internally like "umm, I can probably buy extra crackers..." but, again, mandate.

Kids really want to be treated like they're actually there, in my experience. That's pretty much the whole point. Like decathecting said - she wants a cool grown-up friend. Treat her like she's a short, can't-drive-yet, doesn't-know-all-the-rules-yet friend who has to be back by 8pm, for whom there is (obviously) no obligation to say "yes" to endlessly. I'm certain her school friends don't buy her stuff to take home to her family: that's just not the role of a social acquaintance.

You ought to see if BB/BS (or a county/city agency in your area) has any ongoing mentoring training programs. Our community's old FirstLink (whose new name I can't remember) runs several. We also have get-togethers for the adults in the various mentoring programs, which I think people more extroverted than I appreciate.

And nerves are also normal. I'm more freaked out about my kid's family/house (I came from a very quiet home, and hers has lots of kids and the TV and the dog...) But it's normal.
posted by SMPA at 8:14 PM on June 30, 2010

I'm certainly not an expert on kids, but I also volunteer for bbbs, and have some of the same frustrations.

1) Money - my little just turned 8, and really had no idea about the relative prices of things. So, I've started giving her a budget of $15-$20/outing. This has to cover her food and any tickets/rentals/etc. (But cant be used for toys or anything she would take home with her ... That would be against the rules) Anything left over is kept in a box that I keep, so she can save up to do something expensive.

2) Hard topics - I call her out on stuff, and try to make her think about it. For example, she made a slightly derogatory remark about gays. Without making a big deal about it, we talked about how some boys like other boys, and its just like how she knows that she likes boys. She didn't necessarily get it, but I hope to have planted a seed there.

3) restaurants are hard. My little is younger, and responds well to me coaching her on table manners. I pretty much only try to show her how to use the utensils or stop behavior that would annoy other people. We always have paper and pencils with us for hangman/tic tac toe/origami/drawing....infinite quiet amusements.

I figure the important things are that i show up when I say I will and that we try to have fun
I definitely try to treat her as my friend, but that can be really hard due to how young she is. If she winds up thinking of me as a sort of very cool auntie, that would be great.

JannaK - oh, me too. 8 is so young, and i haven't been all that happy with the bbbs administration's match process. I will definitely not be continuing after a year.
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:51 PM on June 30, 2010

Take this for whatever it's worth, as I've never done BB/BS. But I disagree with the "be her friend" advice. It's not like you're going to ask her opinion on your outfit. There's a power imbalance here, and you're the adult. It's like you're a boss taking your employee out for a social lunch. You can't try to be friends, because you can fire them. (In BB/BS, maybe the little sister can opt out, but as the adult, you still have more power.) As the person with more power, you have to be comfortable setting a context and boundaries within which she can otherwise do what she wants. If things veer outside of that zone, whoops!, you have to steer the group back into the right territory. Within the defined boundaries, let her be herself.

E.g.: "hey, I'd love to take you out to lunch. do you want to go to A, B, or C?" Her: "What about D?" You: "Sorry, D's out of our budget. Are you saying you want Mexican? E and F are Mexican restaurants we could go to."

E.g.: "so, we have about another half hour before we have to leave the mall, what store do you want to walk around in next?"

E.g.: "oh hey, I forgot to mention this, but I actually have a thing about swearing, can you please protect my delicate ears?" ;)

In my experience as a camp counselor, it always went better after the first month, after I got a bit annoyed with the campers and stopped wondering whether they liked me. So here's another way to think about it: you're the guide keeping everybody safe along the trail. Stop wondering if they like you, accept that you have more power in the situation, and then focus on making the situation go well overall (first) and making them comfortable (second). On a camping trip, the most important thing is making sure everyone is going to be safe ("you cannot take food to your tent"); second is finding ways to make sure people are comfortable, doing well emotionally, and having a good time ("hey, how ya doin, you look a little tired"), particularly to be on the lookout for problems. And to head off problems, you also have to also keep an eye on your own safety, well-being, and comfort, and be comfortable taking steps to get the things you need. Then, within that narrow window where everyone is safe and comfortable and you're sitting around the fire chit-chatting, that's where you try to get to know them on their terms and share pieces of yourself as relevant and appropriate.

tl;dr -- Be comfortable being in charge of the situation, do so in a way that makes the situation safe and comfortable for you both, and within those boundaries, give them wide latitude to be themselves and be comfortable being yourself.

Sorry this was really repetitive. Rambling tonight.
posted by salvia at 9:34 PM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I did the BB thing before I had kids; felt some of the same emotions too when I started ("I don't know what I'm doing here;" "I'll wreck things for him" etc. - ironically one selfish reason that I joined was to give myself more confidence that I could take care of kids, yet the first few weeks made me less so.) That passed over time. What helped were the suggestions of the supervisor, who told me to get feedback from my LB often and also some direction from the parent. You'll get a lot of cues on which way to take things if you do that.

Also, feel free to ask questions of your supervisor at BS/BB. They're there to pass on the wisdom of others who've been where you are.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:35 PM on June 30, 2010

\I've never been a Big Sister, but I have babysat a lot and worked at a number of family-focused nonprofits.

The extra food thing is awkward, but don't take it personally. I see that a lot from kids I've worked with...I think it's a combination of not knowing that it's not appropriate to ask, and a genuine instinct to protect/provide for the family.

I happened to be looking back on some old school papers yesterday, and I found this interview that I did with my mom for some school project when I was about 14. I asked her about parenting me, our relationship, etc. One thing she said was "I believe that while you are not my equal, you are a human being and you deserve respect. My philosophy is that the end result is much better when you treat your kid with respect." Wise woman.

One thing I wouldn't worry about is if she likes you. Trust me - you're older, you're interested in her, and you spend time with her. That's pretty much a recipe for instant liking.

11-year-olds are fun, because they're old enough to have conversations with you on on more of an adult level. Not that they're your contemporary, but they're not in kindergarten either. The girl that I babysit is 10 now, and I actually like her even better than when she was 5! We can watch more adult movies that we both enjoy (The Addams Family, for instance). She actually has great fashion sense - I don't think it would be weird for me to ask her opinion on an outfit. We obviously can't have conversations on the same level as I can with an adult, but I tell her things about my life ("My boyfriend is so silly - I caught him drinking milk out of the carton! Ew!!!) that she can relate to.

Think of this as an opportunity for you to have fun and let your hair down a little bit. You can do all sorts of fun kiddish things that you don't get to do anymore - watch cartoons, make friendship bracelets, get ice cream cones, play board games, etc.

I don't want to freak you out, but since she is a pre-teen girl, you may have to handle some issues with puberty, sex, etc. This is actually a good thing - if she feels comfortable enough talking to you about it, then you're doing something right! The book "What's Happening to my Body" is a good resource for you both. You may also be a godsend for her because presumably you're not freaked out by buying pads at the drugstore.

Also I don't know what your feelings are about birth control and sex and all that, but you might want to find out what they teach in her school, and decide if you want to fill in the gaps (if it were me and I were mentoring a kid in New Orleans, I would feel compelled to give her some pretty comprehensive sex ed because they have an abstiencence-only program here).
posted by radioamy at 1:12 AM on July 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for such helpful advice and input, and confirmation that what I am experiencing is normal. I honestly didn't expect to have the nerves, but yeah, I think, as salvia pointed out, I need to not be afraid to take charge of the situation. Because I'm definitely not nervous around my friends' kids, I can point out when they are crossing a line.

And as many of you mentioned, yes, it comes down to balancing the "power" aspect of being the adult, but also being a friend. There are many things I didn't consider, such as setting a budget for each outing. And, I did try to steer her to the TGIF resturant across the street (her mom had said that was one of her fave places, too), but she wanted Red Lobster, which didn't bother me to take her there (although I personally detest the place!), but it was all about her. But the "I want to take some home for my siblings" comment threw me! I agree also with keeping going out to eat to resturants to a minimum. The baking, parks, and picnic ideas are also excellent, as well as the second-run movies. We did discuss those ideas at dinner.

radioamy, ok, now i'm really nervous--the sex talk! unfortunately, any sort of talk about that was non-existent growing up, so I will have to keep that in mind if it comes up and prepare myself. thank you for the resource. I will check it out.
posted by foxhat10 at 5:20 AM on July 1, 2010

I did BBBS for a year and was matched with an 8 year old who would have asked for the moon every outing if she could. One suggestion is that you may want to set a small budget for 1 outing per month, and make the other outings that month free things. Summer makes that easy - you can play frisbee in the park, go to the beach/lake, play tennis, go to neighborhood fairs, have a picnic, etc. I think the best activity I did with my little was go sledding in the winter (she loved it), and sometimes we would go to the library and do crafts there.

My local BBBS organization was great in that they emphasized doing free/no-cost activities, which means that restaurants or spendier activities really are "treats," and not normal occurrences which may be taken for granted after a while.

Also, my little always asked to bring food home, even saving some of her own food to do so. I asked my coordinator about this, and she said that kids who live in unstable homes often feel the need to provide for siblings or even parents. She said it was very common amongst kids in the program to do this, but that taking food off the table completely with regard to outings can help ease some of those issues. My little had serious food allergies and did not have an epi-pen, so I was relieved to make our outings food-free.

Best of luck, and I hope things go well for you and your little.
posted by Maarika at 9:05 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Way to go for being a Big!

I was a Big Brother for two years and it was while I was a poor college student. So boundaries about spending were important.

I was told, and found it to be true, that littles get a lot out of just "hanging" and being a part of your life. Make it clear that you are her Big because you want to spend time with her and hang out together, not because you want to make all of her Entertainment Boondoggle Fantasies come true. And yes, you have to say "No." In fact, the idea that you are willing to set and enforce boundaries yet still be their friend is a very important thing for them to experience.

It's cool to take them on errands with you if you find a way to include them in the errands as well as stop off to do/see something cool before or after. Your Little needs to see first hand what a grown-up responsible woman does in her life. She also probably needs to expand her horizons about how to have fun in simple, frugal ways.

So maybe you take her by the office to pay a bill on your way to the park to blow bubbles. Maybe the two of you could grocery shop for meal ingredients, make a meal, and clean up together. Let her pick some of the dishes to make and teach her some cooking skills. Maybe the two of you do some crafting or work together on a volunteer project like a park cleanup. Make each visit like a special part of your normal life instead of a planned event.
posted by cross_impact at 10:52 AM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Myself, I HAD a Big Sister when I was younger, so here's a perspective from the kid's side.

We almost never ate out, so I didn't expect it. The one or two times we did, she chose the restaurant. Mostly we did crafts and projects and we baked. (I assume we did these things because the agency matched us based on our interests. Other pairs might be matched because they like sports or whatever.)

She never mothered me; she was like a much older sister who wanted to do fun stuff with me and indulge me a little bit. I had a great mom and probably didn't need extra mothering, but I admit that some girls might. I really don't think she would have had a problem telling me "no" if I asked for too much - just like a real big sister, she would have been forthright about the reasons.

Your Little Sister sounds like quite a different person from me, though. So your reactions will depend. I think it is so sweet that she was thinking of bringing something to her younger siblings. Maybe you could have suggested a cheaper alternative, like letting her pick a toy at the dollar store for each of them on the way home. (But, that said, you're not a charity and you certainly don't have to be this family's patron/benefactor.) Families don't have to be poor to apply for a Big Sister, so ymmv.

Sounds like you are going to be a great Big Sister. Just relax, be yourself, and think "sister" - not mom, not aunt, just sister.
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:19 PM on July 1, 2010

Your Little needs to see first hand what a grown-up responsible woman does in her life.

Well-stated, cross-impact!
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:23 PM on July 1, 2010

Response by poster: thank you for the additions, especially from the former little perspective, Knowyournuts! I really appreciate it; and also about just integrating our outings into "things-to-do" or errands. it allows just a regular time together and not just a focus on "ok, let's have fun! FUN! FUN!" That was something I would do with my nieces very regularly, and they loved it because I'd let them rock out to their music in my car riding from place to place and just hanging out in a regular, day-to-day way. It's just been a long time since then, but I just need to just relax and let it happen and I am sure it will all be good!

thank you all again-you all provided awesome insight!
posted by foxhat10 at 6:48 PM on July 1, 2010

« Older Wait, Wait-esque podcasts - Update?   |   What white/orange/blue blogging site did I use in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.