My two sons are only 16 months apart. We wanted to have our children close in age because both my husband and I have close-in-age siblings, and our experiences of growing up were overall positive. When people see us with two little ones running around, they say that we have a handful, and it is true that we do, but when we see them doing things together such as playing, giggling, sharing and entertaining each other, my husband and I look at each other and smile. As my husband likes to say, “It’s all part of the master plan”.
But when they are so close together in age, there are also unique challenges. I’m currently experiencing a situation where my younger one who is 20 months old seems to be more advanced than the older one who just turned 3 this week. The older one is not interested in potty training at all, while the younger one is eager to try it out. It might be that it’s still new thing for him and it’s exciting, as there were times when my older one was more interested in it than he is now. But I feel a bit of a dilemma; whenever the younger one is successful at using the potty, I want to acknowledge that fact, but I want to do so in such a way that it doesn’t make the older one feel that we are comparing them. Too often we use expressions such as “see what your younger brother can do!” to the older one. Even if our intention is not to guilt trip him or shame him, it’s not too hard to imagine how he could take it as a comparison or a way to pressure him to do certain things that he might not be ready for. If you grew up with siblings, you know what I am talking about.
On the other hand, I also feel for my younger son; Since I was the younger one in my family, I feel that sometimes I was robbed of my parents’ un-prohibited expressions of joy for my success or achievement, in consideration of my brother’s feelings. My brother and I are totally different in every sense, and while in school, it was clear to everybody (including myself) that my brother was smarter than I was, academically speaking. I say this without any sense of jealousy or hidden agenda. He was just brilliant and he also knew how to explain things well to others. I still remember my brother trying to help me with math when I got totally lost at the beginning of 7th grade. But one thing I did better than he did was performing at really important exams. I was simply luckier than he was, or maybe there was less competition for girls than boys. In any case, because of these differences, my parents didn’t really show me how excited they were about my getting into a private school or the university. Even as a child I understood why they did that, and it was not like I’ve been holding a grudge for not getting that. I knew that they were happy and excited for me, even though they didn’t show me in a way I wanted them to. I understood why they didn’t, and I didn’t think that it was such a big deal. I am sure they did their best in trying to protect both of us in their own way. But I recently came to realize that this is showing up in my life in an interesting way; I am super sensitive to people “bragging” about their kids, however innocent, because I have this limiting belief that “Bragging about one’s successes and accomplishments is bad. It could hurt other people’s feelings”. I wasn’t aware of that connection until I attended a weekend course called “Self-Reliance” earlier this year. I knew that every time my friend said “Look what my kid can do!”, I would politely smile and say “that’s nice” but quickly change the subject, as I didn’t want to continue that conversation. I knew that it was one of my buttons, but I didn’t know why. During the course I had a chance to talk about that, and I finally made the connection. Even the word I used “bragging” shows my negative judgment on the act of acknowledging or celebrating one’s accomplishments. I must have felt like I am being compared as a parent, even though my friend’s intention wasn’t that at all. Now that I am aware of my limiting belief which came from my childhood experiences, I am a little bit more relaxed about it when a similar situation comes up. But it also gave me all the more for a reason not to let my younger one feel like I am not excited about what he can do. I want to make sure that he knows that I am happy and excited for him.
So what do I do? There is no magic formula that we can apply to every situation, because each child is different. Moreover, siblings will have different experiences and memories even when they experience the exact same event, because they are not clones. It depends on the child’s temperament and different circumstances, and you can never fully accurately predict how certain events are going to affect them. The older one might not care that the younger one is more advanced in certain areas, or he might feel he has to prove himself. That is why this balancing act is an art and not science. The only rule, to me, is that we should love our kids uniquely for who they are, which includes accepting that they grow at their own pace. I turned to my mentor Susie Walton for her suggestion, and she said that potty training is one area that you can’t really pressure or trick them into doing. In this case, she’d just ask the younger one if he successfully uses the potty “What do you need to do next?” (such as washing hands, etc.) and in the end just say “Thank you”, in a matter-of-the-fact sort of way. I’ll try that and see how that goes – I’m dying to know what’s going on in the older one’s mind when he sees the younger one use the potty! In any case, I know that this is just the beginning of a long way to get closer to mastering the art of the balancing act. I’d love it if you could share your own experience growing up with siblings, or how you are doing with your own balancing act for your children!