My children are 20 months apart. Ryan, the older one, is trying to figure out social norms and learn where he fits in. Riley, the younger sister, is barreling into tween-dom at light speed.
They are often headed in opposite directions. They fight like cats and dogs. It’s rarely anything serious, just standard age-appropriate name calling and general obnoxiousness (mostly from Ryan’s end, it must be noted) and way-too-frequent over- over- over-reactions.
But, they love each other too, and in between the tumult and the shouting, there are sometimes tender moments. A few weeks ago, Ryan decided he wanted to cook his own breakfast of Belgian waffles and bacon. He enjoys cooking and often makes his own pizza or fixes his own breakfast, but on this day he was determined to do everything himself — from measuring the ingredients to pouring the batter to buttering the waffles. He enjoyed it so much, he even prepared a plate for Riley. She, ever the lazy one upon waking up, was all too happy to enjoy his hospitality.
When I see these moments I like to point out to both of them that for all the fighting they do, they also make it obvious that they care about each other. Usually this is met with a shrug, a “whatever” and another insult.
We spent part of the weekend visiting my parents. Ryan and Riley played together in the pool — if you could call it that. Their games were marked by frequent disagreements and arguing, requiring regular intervention from us.
When Riley went to bed that night, I noticed she was tucked in with a giant stuffed cow that usually occupies the bed where Ryan sleeps. I asked her how she ended up with it.
“Ryan said I could use it,” she told me.
I decided to try again. “You two really do love each other and help each other out,” I said.
Rather than shoo me away, Riley perked up. She wanted to talk about the ways they help each other. Since Ryan wasn’t in the room, I mentioned things like cooking breakfast. Riley agreed, and when it was her turn to list the ways she helped her brother, she said, “I help Ryan understand social stuff, because sometimes he really needs my help.”
Veronica and I exchanged a quick glance before offering her praise.
She does help him, a lot. Sometimes she enjoys it, sometimes it exasperates her. But deep down, I suspect she helps him because she doesn’t want to see him hurt or embarrassed by social situations he may not understand. Those things could of course lead to embarrassment for her as well, and it would be perfectly understandable if that’s her motivation for intervening on his behalf. We don’t care.
We talk to Riley about some of the burdens she carries as a special-needs sibling. She attends a sib shop support group. We acknowledge that sometimes she deals with things that she shouldn’t have to or that are unfair, but that’s just how our family has to operate. We know that this experience will make her a more tolerant, compassionate person.
Hearing Riley express the responsibility she feels to look out for her brother comes with a mixture of pride and sadness. She did not ask for this responsibility, and occasionally it weighs on her in ways we wish we could alleviate. And yet, I can’t think of anything that makes me prouder as a parent.