It sucks to be a second child.
Being a first child myself, I always kind of knew this, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve really come to understand just how hard it is. When I was a kid, I used to torture my poor little brother. My favorite line to use on him was that I was bigger, faster, smarter and stronger, and it made no difference to me whatsoever that I was only conferred those advantages because I’d been born three and a half years before him. I didn’t care that one day he would most certainly be bigger, faster, stronger, and maybe even smarter than me. At the time, he wasn’t, and I let him know it whenever I got the chance.
It wasn’t until I took Psych 101 in college that I even thought about the damage I might have done to his self-esteem. But now that I’m the parent of a big sister/little brother, I’m really starting to see how awful it must have been.
Let me just say here that generally speaking, my daughter is not that mean to my son. He annoys her, and she yells at him and locks him out of her room sometimes, but she doesn’t overtly put him down, and for that I’m eternally grateful. And yet, lately, my poor little boy has just been devastated by her.
The fact is, she doesn’t have to put him down or point out to him that she’s bigger or faster or stronger or smarter, because he already knows it all by himself. He’s not a dumb kid – he can see that she’s bigger. He knows that when they race each other, she always wins. He knows that she can swim farther, that she can ice skate better, that she can read longer books, that she can draw prettier pictures, and that she can figure out more complicated math problems. And no matter how many times I tell him that she couldn’t do all of those things when she was six, it doesn’t change the fact that she can do them now, and he can’t.
The other night, my son tried to show us something he learned in science camp this summer; it was that trick where you put water in a cup and spin it around and the water doesn’t fall out. Except he held the cup the wrong way, and the water spilled everywhere. So my daughter jumped in and said, no, no, no, this is how you do it, and got it right on the first try, causing my son to instantly melt down to a puddle. I took him aside to talk to him, and he was just sobbing about how she can do everything and he can’t do anything, and he feels like he’s the dumb one in the family because there’s nothing that he’s the best at. So I started pointing out all of the things he’s good at, like building Legos and playing soccer and making up crazy stories and using his imagination. But he shot me down every time. Everyone builds Legos. Everyone on my team is better than me at soccer. Everyone uses their imagination. Like I said, he’s not a dumb kid.
At that moment, I realized this was just one of those things that I can’t make right for him, no matter how much I want to. I can keep exposing him to new things, but if he wants to be the best at something – or at least better than his big sister – then he’s going to have to figure out for himself what it is he loves, and he’s going to have to put in the work to get really good at it. For my brother, it was art. He’s an incredibly talented artist, while I can barely make stick figures, and I think it always made him feel good to have that over me. I may have been bigger and faster and stronger and smarter, but he was the gifted artist, and we both knew it.
I would love for my son to have something like that. I would love for him to be confident that he’s great at something. But no matter how much it breaks my heart, I can’t hand it to him on a silver platter. I can love him, and support him and give him all of the encouragement I possibly can, but in the end, he’s the one who’s going to have to get out from under his sister’s long shadow, all by himself.