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I have written a lot about my older son, and very little about my younger son. This is in part because I didn’t start writing these posts until the oldest was old enough to give me what I felt was informed consent.

My youngest is not yet at that age, so most of this post will actually be about my oldest son. He was in senior kindergarten when his brother was born.

There’s a lot of anxiety when one is contemplating the advent of a second child. Most of it centers around the reaction of the first child. I’m going to assume that both parents are cognizant of the second child’s arrival, and that both parents have some say in it. I realize there are exceptions, but, that’s my general assumption for this post.

The other child, however, has no say. It’s not like we take him aside and consult with him, or ask his permission. He is going to have a sibling, regardless of how he feels. I have read in other places that for some children this is unwelcome and highly destabilizing - it would be akin to a husband telling his wife that today he has brought home a brand! new! wife! and his old wife is going to love! her!.

It can be traumatizing. It is also a fact of life. Second children do not arrive as trial runs; if things aren’t working out, there’s nowhere to send them back. So, regardless of trauma level, it has to be made to work.

My oldest son was fascinated by babies. He knew that as a child he was hopelessly indulged by all of the adults around him - but also by the handful of older cousins he’d met. He understood that children - younger children - were therefore meant to be indulged. They were a source of fun. He was not concerned about the pregnancy (although the morning sickness was perturbing for him). He accepted our explanations of why it occurred and how it would end.

But - he was nervous. He was old enough, at five, that we decided the best approach was to take him into our parent counsels as a co-parent in matters that concerned the new baby. When I say “we decided”, it has the usual meaning: We had a long discussion or three on how to make the baby a welcome addition and not a shadowy replacement.

My reasoning was this: He was old enough to feel the age difference.

When a child is a baby, there are all sorts of things you ignore. You don’t expect an eight month old to have good table manners. You don’t expect them to ask before they grab something out of your hands. You certainly don’t expect them to ask permission before they take a chewed up bit of food and plop it into your mouth.

You also don’t expect them to have survival instincts. Some babies who can crawl will home in on the light sockets with their forks. (My two never did this; my son’s godfather’s oldest never did this. His youngest? At every opportunity. He’d crawl off chairs onto the kitchen counter to attempt to stick knives and forks into the toaster.) They will crawl off the top of the stairs. They will attempt to use their stroller wheels as teething rings.

This is my roundabout way of saying: the rules of the household - the rules that we all followed when my son was age five - were of course not going to be rules we could expect an infant to even understand. But…they were the rules, right? For my ASD son, they were rules. He needed some sense that they would remain consistent in order to feel safe in his own home. Since we were the arbiters of rules - we were the ones who enforced timeouts, for example - he would be watching us.

We reasoned that if we allowed him some say - which in this case really means some responsibility - for his baby brother, he would possibly understand why the rules of the household were going to be more fluid for the baby than they were for any of the rest of us. We emphasized the fact that the baby not only did not know better, but would take some time to learn, and during the learning, we needed to pay very close attention and the baby was not really capable of being timed-out.

One of his first questions about the new baby was: “He can’t talk yet?”

So, clearly we did not do enough pre-baby education. He was very disappointed that the baby was not speaking and thinking because he wanted a small child as a playmate. When we told him it would be a couple of years before he was speaking, it seemed like an eternity for my oldest son. He heaved a sigh and wandered off.

And then: he had to endure. He had to be patient when his mother was tending to a newborn infant. I was home - but I wasn’t completely focused, as I had been in his earlier years. He had, by this point, reached an age where he could occupy and amuse himself - that happened at about four and a half. He still, at that age, did not realize that he had to acknowledge the presence of other people: he didn’t reply to greetings, he didn’t reply to (most) statements. He was confused and anxious about the world - so he needed to have an adult around him at all times to feel safe in it.

But he didn’t interact with that adult all that much. When we were playing, he did and would - but most of play involved chasing him while he shrieked with laughter and ran away. So, we knew he was aware of us and what we were doing, but he didn’t yet understand the need to interact with us; he just wanted us there.

Being there with a baby was not quite the same, and he knew it, although his level of interaction didn’t change at all. His level of anxiety did - and that, we expected. But during this time, I would talk to the oldest while interacting with the youngest. I would talk about what my oldest had been like as a baby. He couldn’t remember this, of course, so he had no sense of the elasticity of rules and their application.

And he had not yet developed theory of mind, so he had trouble understanding what a baby could--and could not--understand. The known world was known. Period.

As he watched our disappointing new playmate, he accepted certain things as truth: the baby could not crawl down the stairs. The baby had no teeth and couldn’t be expected to eat--or want--our food. It was fairly easy to make certain distinctions based on observable fact. While the second was basically a babe in arms there was very little friction.

When he began to toddle and walk, it was different. As he grew more independent, he became much more aware of what his brother was doing--and of course, in the way of small children everywhere, it was what his brother was doing that was interesting. In particular, it was his brother’s toys that were clearly the only fun toys in the room.

When my oldest was such a toddler he was, of course, allowed to play with anything that grabbed his attention. He was, after all, taking it from his parents, who understood that this, too, would pass. We didn’t feel particularly resentful because it was entirely our decision--and anything that amused him was a good thing, for us.

We could not allow that for my youngest child. I mean, we could allow ourselves to indulge his instant and fetching curiosity - but nothing we played with struck him as remotely interesting. He homed in on his brother, and the toys his brother had.

And I remember, when my youngest was about fifteen months old, he had trundled over to his brother and had grabbed the toy his brother was playing with. His brother did not yank it back - instead, he looked at me. And I understand that we had reached the point at which the rules were being tested. Not by my oldest son - and not by the youngest, who clearly had no sense of actual rules - but in total.

His younger brother had grabbed the toy he was playing with. The older son was not allowed to randomly grab things that other people were playing with; he was expected to ask, to be given permission, and also to share. (If something was too valuable to share, it was a room-toy - it was to stay in his room if there were visitors. In a like fashion, things we didn’t want to share with him were also room toys - they were to stay in our room. We did have some things that he was to handle with care in the public spaces, but in truth, not many; I wasn’t willing to have a two to four hour fight about random things.)

So…I made the baby give the toy back to his older brother. Would I have done this to my older son at the same age? No. If he grabbed something I might tell him to ask, but at base, I would let him play with it or show him how it worked.

I could not demand that my six year old do the same. It was a moment of clarity for me: If I did not insist that the baby give the toy back to his brother and negotiate in a polite and reasonable way - which, given his age, was entirely beyond him - something would break. He was remarkably tolerant of the younger son, but as the younger son began to walk and became more interactive - and therefore more trouble - he was narrowing the gap in “baby” behaviour and “child” behaviour.

My youngest, as you can imagine, was not thrilled to have his toy taken away. The fact that he had scarfed it from his brother counted for nothing. He had it, we were taking it away. But I could see my oldest relaxing because it confirmed, to him, that the baby was not the centre of the household, and that the rules that the oldest son had to live by were still the rules.

Of course, my oldest son hated it when the baby cried, and he all but shoved the toy back into my younger son’s hands and ran upstairs holding both hands to his ears just to get the crying to stop, and I then went upstairs to explain that his younger brother would grow out of this in a few years, but until that point, there were a couple of things we could do to get him to drop an interesting toy in favour of another. The biggest was having the older son move to a toy he wasn’t interested in, and feign interest in it.

And because he didn’t actually enjoy making his brother cry, he began to do this.

There were other difficulties, but we resolved most of them through discussion. In particular, if I wanted to set a household rule that I did not think fair to the older brother, I would discuss it with him first. I would discuss it before there was any obvious difficulty, because discussions outside of arguments, while time-intensive, are not emotionally fraught. Any discussion outside of a fight often meant that there were no fights in future, when difficulties did arise. I cannot emphasize this enough: Discussions that occur outside of the emotional bounds of an argument sink in in a way that they can’t when all emotions are engaged.

For instance, we have a PS3. When my youngest was about eight, he got extremely frustrated when his older brother could beat him at a game. His older brother--and his parents--explained that this was an artifact of age and experience, but, well. Explanations did not take. I did not enjoy the meltdowns, so I approached the oldest son and said, “I would like to institute a new rule. If someone has a meltdown while playing on the PS3, I would like to shut it off for the next 24 hour period. Since you don’t have meltdowns, you won’t have done anything wrong--but you’ll be unable to play for that 24 hour period, because I do not want it turned on.”

If my oldest had said No, I would not have instituted the rule. Because it was absolutely true: he would not have done anything to deserve to have the gaming console cut off.

He said yes. He said yes because “it’s no fun playing with him when he gets so upset.”

And that was pretty much the end of meltdowns. I shut the PS3 down exactly once. Thereafter, if there was about to be a meltdown, younger son stopped playing and headed up to his room to calm down - because he also understood that the older son had done nothing wrong, and that they wouldn’t be able to play.

Comments

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
comrade_cat
Jun. 9th, 2012 10:46 am (UTC)
Although I don't know your son and can't verify it, I really love how much you seem to understand your son(s). I wish my parents had this kind of understanding of me.
msagara
Jun. 11th, 2012 01:10 am (UTC)
Although I don't know your son and can't verify it, I really love how much you seem to understand your son(s). I wish my parents had this kind of understanding of me.

I would say that I understood how to parent them, but that’s not quite the same thing, if that makes sense. There are things that my oldest son did not discuss with me, first because he didn’t understand the need for discussion, and then later, because he had some sense of which parts were private.

But he has that teenage-in-the-internet sense of privacy, which is much more fluid than the sense I grew up with.
estara
Jun. 9th, 2012 12:33 pm (UTC)
"I cannot emphasize this enough: Discussions that occur outside of the emotional bounds of an argument sink in in a way that they can’t when all emotions are engaged."

Bless you for realising that and for teaching it to your children. My parents never knew this, neither did I and the result in our interpersonal relationship is not pretty.

I can sometimes do it in work circumstances and that is still hard earned.
mizkit
Jun. 9th, 2012 03:16 pm (UTC)
You have no idea how many useful, thoughtful, insightful things I've taken away from all of these posts, but I'm tremendously grateful to you for them. <3
book_wench
Jun. 9th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
"He can't talk yet?" -- lol. Reminds me of a friend who had a third child after two boys--she & her husband thought they had done an adequate job of preparing the older children for the fact that this baby might NOT be a girl (both boys wanted a sister). However, when the baby was indeed another boy, the younger child's first comment was, "But, mommy, I wanted a girl!"
jennythe_reader
Jun. 12th, 2012 02:23 pm (UTC)
Sounds a lot like what I did when brother number 3 was born.

I had been absolutely sure he was going to be a girl. After all, we already had 2 boys, what did we need with a third? I was so disappointed that I wouldn't have anything to do with him for weeks after he was born. I don't remember doing this, but Mom says I wouldn't hold him, wouldn't touch him, wouldn't even look at him.
ruford42
Jun. 9th, 2012 06:55 pm (UTC)
Wow...I don't envy the challenges you face, but this post makes me smile and wish we could find a similar peace with our boys, or at least a similar understanding and meltdown aversion.
kuangning
Jun. 10th, 2012 04:37 am (UTC)
I wish I had managed to negotiate the same issues as gracefully as this when my daughter came along. Though, since there was only a two-year gap between the two, I don't know how much understanding would have been possible no matter how much explaining I did. We found something akin to peace by getting the two children identical toys whenever possible; eldest child was much more philosophical about having little sister grab for HIS toy when he could simply get up and get the other, identical toy. It didn't work for everything, but since they only ever came to hitting once before little sister outgrew grabbing his toys, I think it worked well enough.

Interestingly, having a baby sister made my eldest much more verbal and social, if only out of sheer self-defense. He would explain to her patiently and repetitively until he felt she understood, often in the same words we used to him. "No, baby, we don't grab. We ask nicely." "No, baby, no hurting." By the time my youngest (not quite two years younger than his sister) was beginning to walk and talk, the older two were a firm team.
msagara
Jun. 11th, 2012 12:58 am (UTC)
I think it’s way harder with a two year gap in some ways - but easier in others. Harder for parent. Easier because the two year old, after a very short period, won’t have strong conscious memories of time before baby; five year olds do. So it’s a tradeoff.

And also: time. Time, how much (helpful) family you have, etc., makes it easier.

There’s 13 months between my sister and I, and my mother found it hard because if she had to leave the baby crying for any reason, she had two extremely upset children in short order. I would start shouting “Mommy, mommy, baby cry! baby cry!” and I would ratchet things up if there wasn’t an immediate response.
lyssabits
Jun. 11th, 2012 02:06 am (UTC)
I'm hoping that my son, now two, will be sorta used to having another person in the house when his sister arrives in October, since I've been doing daycare for an another girl since he was a few months old. He never minds when Charlotte cries. Sometimes, he thinks it's funny. *sigh* On the other hand, he definitely gets jealous. He tries to pull her out of my lap if I hold her, so I know he won't be totally cool with the new baby.

As someone who has a twin sister, and a 7-years-younger brother, I'm firmly in the camp of shorter gaps being better. I never had my parents' sole attention since I had a twin, but my relationship with my brother is practically non-existant, since he's so much younger. And I remember how annoying I found him my entire childhood, because he was always breaking my stuff and following me and my friends around.

I imagine shorter gaps is harder on parents, but not always. All the baby-proofing is in place for my son now, so when the new baby is big enough to get into trouble we won't have to worry about it. I can imagine being irritated if I'd have had to put it all back up again. And I'm kinda used to just not sleeping. ;) Going back to an infant's schedule after finally getting full nights of sleep again might have ben too painful to handle.
kuangning
Jun. 11th, 2012 04:15 am (UTC)
Oh, Lord. If I had ever been inclined to be the cry-it-out sort of parent, my eldest would have disabused me of the notion when baby sister came along. He hated it when she cried, and if I could not calm her quickly -- he was quite willing to help comfort her when the crying started, which helped -- it would end with him in a corner with his hands over his ears, rocking back and forth in distress. Thankfully, of my three children, he himself was the only colicky baby, and I co-slept with all of them because it made breastfeeding easier, so we really didn't have many of those extended crying sessions.

Also, music helped. Eldest would not always respond when spoken to, but he would stop whatever he was doing if I sang, so I was already singing near-constantly. The younger two adapted to that pretty readily, and once they had, it was possible to calm both or all of them in the same way at the same time. That alone may have saved (what was left of) my sanity.
la_marquise_de_
Jun. 10th, 2012 12:03 pm (UTC)
You and T confronted some very difficult issues here. And you did so fairly, intelligently and with compassion. Thank you. (I know slightly too many families where one child has been raised to be junior carer, and to see themselves as less than their siblings due to family circumstances.)
You are amazing.
msagara
Jun. 11th, 2012 01:01 am (UTC)
(I know slightly too many families where one child has been raised to be junior carer, and to see themselves as less than their siblings due to family circumstances.)

I’ve seen a lot of the former, but not as much of the latter. It’s hard not to have older children be junior carers; it’s almost a role they take on in some cases. But I haven’t seen that result in any sense of inferiority to their siblings. At least, not from an adult-observer perspective.

I have seen children resent younger sibling for perceived privilege changes: “I had to wait until I was ten to do that, and they’re doing it at six!” but we kind of avoided that by not pegging privileges to age.

Otoh, there are a lot of disadvantages to not pegging privilege to age, as well. It’s an incentive to be happy about getting older: you can do more.
kuangning
Jun. 11th, 2012 04:26 am (UTC)
I haven’t seen that result in any sense of inferiority to their siblings. At least, not from an adult-observer perspective.

*raises hand.*

Anything I had wasn't mine, it was to be given to siblings if they wanted it. I wasn't supposed to ask for anything for myself because it took up resources better spent on my siblings. If my school uniforms were expensive, my mother told my sisters their dresses were cheaper than she wanted because she'd had to spend too much on me. I felt a lot of times like my only value was in caring for the siblings, and it didn't help that my parents did things like forget to come get me from school (and leave me wherever I was overnight once they realised I was missing!) because until they needed me for some chore, I might as well have been invisible. I know for a fact that I'm not alone in that, though my parents were ... extreme.
msagara
Jun. 12th, 2012 02:24 am (UTC)
I felt a lot of times like my only value was in caring for the siblings, and it didn't help that my parents did things like forget to come get me from school (and leave me wherever I was overnight once they realised I was missing!)

I am another oldest child - an oldest daughter. Five years separate me and the fourth child, so we were all pretty close in age, and maybe that makes a difference. I understood, growing up, that I was not to upset the younger children, and I was to mediate if they were having difficulties.

So in some ways, I was a junior care person - but we also developed small chains of command: I comforted my sister, she comforted the 3rd child (and oldest son), who watched out for the baby. The baby wanted a baby of his own because we all had one, except for him.

When we were very young, money was very tight in our house; it was less of an issue when we got older, in part because we worked part-time and were responsible for buying our own clothing, etc. We didn’t have an allowance until we reached a certain age, but when we reached that age, my mother took the then-extant (it’s gone now) family allowance and gave that directly to us with a “you are responsible for buying your own clothing, books, etc.”

So there was less conflict in that sense because we were in theory on our own. On our own, of course, did not mean that we had to cover mortgage payments or food or utilities; there was some angst about the phone because at the time there was no call-waiting, and my sister and I were heavy phone users.

My role as oldest in the family did come with some responsibilities, but I didn’t feel that I was a burden to the younger siblings - or I wasn’t made to feel that way. It’s actually a little hard to get my head around.
kuangning
Jun. 12th, 2012 06:52 am (UTC)
Again, I wish I had thought to set things up that way. But the child who came after me was a boy, and that played a part too -- my father's only son was never expected to take part in childcare or chores. To this day, he lives at home, and if you ask my brother to do the dishes, my father will get up and do them himself, because while he sees himself as martyr to my mother and a houseful of females, he'll stand on his head if he has to, to spare my brother the indignity. (The first job my brother had, I got for him, working a convenience store alongside me. The female manager asked him to mop the store floor. He opened his eyes wide in shock and protested: "But my sisters do that!" And tried to hand me the mop. It was funny, but telling.)

So, when my first sister came along, I was six and my brother was four, and it would never have been my brother's room they put the crib in. When she was two, the baby came along, and again, crib in my room. I handled all the midnight wakings and almost all the after-school care from the time I was old enough to stand on a stool and reach the stovetop to warm the bottles. My sisters called me Mommy interchangeably with our mother until they were preschoolers.
la_marquise_de_
Jun. 11th, 2012 12:40 pm (UTC)
It may be a British thing: girls in particular end up as carers, and then as adults go into careers where they continue to be rather put upon.
I think as long as things are seen to be fair to and by all children in a family, then things are as good as they can be.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 22nd, 2012 02:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing. I like some of your ideas and have been using them as my older son is on the spectrum but my younger son is not. Mine are closer in age (23 months) so we had less in the expectations of the older though at first he thought his younger brother was a sort of toy. This was both good and bad. I too have tried to be truthful with my sons about my older son. The interesting thing is because of the rules we had about babies my older son is very gentle around small children.
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