My youngest son started Kindergarten five weeks ago. He was one month away from his fifth birthday—a peanut in my book—and separating from us at drop-off time was difficult. Most mornings, he cried. And, my older son, his big brother, started putting his arm around the back of his neck and lovingly guiding him in to the building, a gesture that he has made often when his brother has been unsettled. Well, the tears became less and less until slowly disappearing, but my boys still walk in together every morning.
Seeing my sons so close and caring for one another makes my heart swell. In many ways, my younger son has flourished because he has learned from his big brother. He has been encouraged and challenged and grown through his brother’s love. But, in other ways, it has been less positive. He is significantly less independent than my older son was at his age, and he is so used to getting his own way and not having to navigate social situations without his brother, that he has difficulty making friends on his own.
I suppose that their very different personalities (my oldest being more easygoing and social, and my youngest being highly sensitive and introverted) and the dynamics of their relationship (with my oldest wanting to do everything for his brother, and my youngest happy to let him), lend themselves easily to the realization that my youngest son appears to have recently had: He is living in his brother’s shadow.
Within the first few weeks, I had several well-intending school staff and parents of other kids say, “I knew right away that he was Jason’s brother. He looks just like him.” At first, I thought this was sweet, and initially, my youngest appeared to take pride in this fact. Yes, he is Jason’s brother, and Jason is awesome. But over time, with each person who said it, these words appeared to take on new meaning.
Jason’s brother. But he is not only Jason’s brother. He is Dominic. He has his own personality and his own interests. And, at times, they are hidden in his brother’s shadow. And, while I think that he has sought shelter there for a long time, in recent weeks, he appears to realize the implications of this and wants to establish himself as an individual in the world.
As his fifth birthday rolled around, we began planning for his party, and for the first time, he had very strong ideas about what he wanted. This was hard for me, as these strong ideas at times contrasted greatly with what we had always done for birthdays … what we had always done for Jason’s birthdays … and so, I asked a lot of questions and within reason, I followed his lead. First, he struggled to identify the location. For weeks he vacillated between the place that his brother typically has his parties and the place that he seemed to truly want, eventually landing on the latter.
Then, came the guest list. Even as a young child, he is acutely aware of his introvert status. He is easily overwhelmed by large numbers of people and high social stimulation, often asking to end play dates early, not go to summer camp, and even leave fun places and other children’s birthday parties early because it is too much to handle. So, he wanted to keep the guest list short. As an introvert myself, I totally got this, but the social worker in me wanted him to invite and include everyone as we had always done. But he was firm. He wanted his five closest friends and family.
As my husband and I suggested other potential invitees, he would often say, “That is Jason’s friend.” My first instinct was to correct him and say that they were his friend too. But the more we talked, the more I understood what he meant. My older son has many friends, and over time, my husband and I got to know those families, became friends, and our family often spent time with their families. That is just what parents do with their first child, when we are desperate to establish a friend group that also has children. But once we were satisfied and established our group, we did not make the same effort with my younger son’s friends and their families. And, while my younger son likes those children and enjoys playing with them very much, by calling them “Jason’s friends,” he was really saying, “I am trying to figure out who I am and who my core friends are without Jason.” So, although it was hard for me, I conceded.
Next, the gifts. Dominic asked for many things that we already have, from Nerf guns to super hero toys to Lego sets. And, when my husband and I would say, “Buddy, we already have one of those. Don’t you want to ask for something we don’t already have,” his answer was always the same: “Those are Jason’s.” And he was not wrong. They were toys that over the years my older son accumulated because developmentally, he liked those things first. I hated the thought of spending money or asking anyone else to spend money on items that we already owned. But the more we talked, the more I understood how he felt. Most of his belongings were hand-me-downs. And, he was okay with the idea of becoming the new owner of a toy that my older son no longer wanted. But, what he did not like was being the one to share his brother’s toys all the time. He felt like he had no power. No ownership. There was nothing that he had that his brother ever wanted, and so, he felt at the mercy of his brother with the items that he was most interested in. I imagine that feels awful. And so, now, he has his own Nerf guns and Lego sets.
As hard as it is to let go of the way things have always been done (Man, do I hate change), allow some flexibility, and ask a thousand questions to understand the rationale behind the changes that do not make sense at face value, it is definitely time. While I have spent the past few years looking as his behavior as challenging and worried that he may never make friends, I have come to realize, that maybe I have not yet provided him with opportunities to do so. I have learned that in just a few short weeks, he has made friends. And those friends see him as the funny guy, and he is actually quite kind and gives gifts to his friends almost daily. He may never have a thousand friends, but he is establishing his identity with the friends he does have. He has opinions and ideas about what he wants to do and who he wants to be. I just need to ask and to listen.
It is time for my youngest son to step out from the darkness of his brother’s shadow.
He is coming into his own.
And he is going to shine.