09/05/2012 11:45 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Younger Siblings and the Unfortunate Byproduct of Playing Up

Written by John Cave Osborne for

A Phrase is Coined
Shortly after I married my wife, Caroline, she introduced me to the concept of "playing up." Only she didn't call it "playing up" because, unlike me, she's not prone to coining phrases for varied and random phenomenon. Regardless, she was talking about a precocious little boy, one who had the reputation of dropping age-inappropriate pop culture references. Along with the occasional F-bomb. I wondered aloud how such a young kid could already be swimming in the profane waters of sexual innuendo, to which Caroline replied:

"He's got older siblings."

I didn't understand what she meant, so she explained that older kids see and hear things that younger children aren't ready to see or hear -- whether it's on TV, on the radio or even just from interacting with their peers. And that means that tagalong little siblings are often granted access to a world that they're not ready for. Which what was probably at the root of this little boy's behavior.

Essentially children like him are "playing up" because they're exposed to a league which is technically designated for older children.

Related: 25 horrifying photos of stuff kids have ruined

So That's What My Problem Was
I had four much-older siblings. The youngest was eight years older than me -- the oldest, 13 years. And I was quite the tagalong. As such, I picked up on a lot of things well before it was time. So while my fellow first graders liked to sing songs about Mary and her little lamb or an old grey goose that had kicked the bucket, I was more into the top 40 scene.

And my very favorite song in the first grade was Sammy John's "Chevy Van." It's about this dude who's cruising around in (get this) a Chevy van alongside some random hitch-hiking chick he'd picked up -- a woman who naps innocently in his front seat at the song's onset.

But she's wide awake by the time the chorus rolls around -- a chorus I delighted in singing over and over to my classmates:

She woke up and took me by the hand.
We made love in my Chevy van.
And that's alright with me.

I bet it was, Sammy. Alright, indeed.

I also bet the parents of my first-grade peers didn't exactly love it when their kids came home singing about Sammy John's propensity for banging nomadic nymphomaniacs in the back of his shag-upholstered vehicle. And when word got back to these parents that it was the little Osborne kid who'd introduced their children to such questionable content, I bet that upon at least one occasion, a previous generation's Caroline explained away my behavior by saying: he's got older siblings.

And I finally get it. Because it's not like I was intentionally doing anything bad.

I mean, don't get me wrong -- it's never appropriate for a first grader to sing about some guy going all standing-doggie with a total stranger in the back of his van, but my behavior was, at least in part, the byproduct of me playing up. The byproduct of being privy to media consumed by my much-older siblings. Media I wasn't mature enough to handle.

Related: The 10 biggest secrets parents hide from their kids

Something About Idealism and Terrible Math
At the time Caroline (re)introduced me to "playing up," we were planning on having another child. Which meant that we'd probably have a younger sibling on our hands in the not-so-distant future. And I vowed that such a child would never play up.

Fast forward to four kids later and I'll be honest -- I've not kept that vow. Don't get me wrong. Caroline and I do our best to make sure the triplets steer clear of anything that's not age-appropriate. Same thing with Alli.

But now that our house is so full, some of our idealistic parenting philosophies have flown out the window. Fine. You caught me. All of our idealistic parenting philosophies have flown out the window. And the vow to never let our kids play up is one of them.

See, mathematicians will tell you that the best way to deal with fractions is to find the lowest common denominator. But they're wrong, because I deal with fractions all the time -- as in a fraction of my kids wants this while another fraction of them wants that. And I'm here to tell you, the easiest way to deal with fractions isn't by finding the lowest common denominator -- it's by finding the highest.

For example, if our oldest wants to watch "Shake It Up" but the triplets want to watch "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" (come inside, it's fun inside), the best way to keep the peace isn't by forcing our 11-year-old to channel her inner Minnie. It's by going the other way, instead, as the triplets love the rare treat of watching a "big kid" show. So when there's a battle over media, the best way to keep the peace is to appeal to the highest denominator.

No. That doesn't mean the triplets get a steady diet of tween media. Because (a) the triplets don't watch a lot of TV to begin with and (b) we have more than one TV in our house, so if and when a battle for the remote ensues, we can, indeed, have the ideal situation by employing a divide-and-conquer strategy.

But "common container" situations are a different matter entirely. (There I go again. Coining phrases.) You know -- when the entire family is stuck with each other, like in a hotel room, or more common for us, the "common container" of a long trip in the car? Well, that's a great example of a situation where our idealism has flown out the window.

Related: 12 things your kids MUST see you do

There's No Way He Just Said That
Case in point: We recently drove to the beach and back. All seven of us. Three 4-year-olds, an 11-year-old, an infant and two extremely taxed parents. Taxed because those trips are rough, y'all. And to help us maintain our sanity, we're not afraid to utilize our vehicle's DVD player.

And this last trip we dealt with our fractions by finding the highest common denominator. And, per usual, our math was perfect as popping in a DVD of the TV show "Victorious" had finally bought us some much needed peace and quiet.

It was so quiet, in fact, that I was following along with the show by listening to it.

Part of the episode was about a boy named Robbie who'd landed in the hospital thanks to extreme stomach pain. It turned out that a bully had forced Robbie to swallow a matchbox Pontiac when Robbie was little, and the toy car had gotten lodged in his small intestine.

It's the school's guidance counselor, Lane, who first hears of Robbie's predicament via text -- one he reads to Robbie's friends.

It says there's a car parked in Robbie's butt.

Caroline and I turned to each other as if questioning whether we'd heard the quote correctly. The looks on our faces confirmed we had. Then came the laughter which we did our best to stifle. After all, none of the kids seemed to have caught this odd and inappropriate line and the last thing we wanted to do was draw attention to it.

Once our muffled laughter had run its course, Caroline, wiping tears from her eyes, said:

"What in the world was that all about?"

"I'm not sure, babe, but I think it had something do with playing up."

Pithy Little Moral
Which, again, isn't ideal. Playing up, that is. But I'm somewhat okay with that. Because the one thing that I've learned about parenting, at least as it pertains to my family, is this:

The reason why it's so important to capitalize upon ideal situations is because they're so few and far between. So for all those other situations? It's probably best to check your idealism at the door, then do the very best you can.

Just make sure you don't check your sense of humor at the door. You'll probably need that.


25 things every kid should experience
11 signs you're a babysitter's worst nightmare
7 reasons why it's good to be a "mean mom"