Thursday, January 5, 2017

On Imitation and Vulnerability

Put your ego aside, listen to those crossing your path; they may hold the key you have been looking for.  --Martin Suarez

There was a time when the Heir would complain constantly, as eldest children tend to do, about the Spare. 

"MOM, Ben's bugging me."
"MOM, Ben's following me."
"MOM, tell Ben to stop copying me."

Tired of breaking up the endless fights, I sat the Heir down one day for a little tête-à-tête. 

Me: "Why do you think he does these things?"

Jacob: "To bug me."

Me: "BZZT. That's what bullies do. This is your brother we're talking about. Try again."

Jacob: *blinks*

Me: "Do you really not see it? Ben does these things because he doesn't just look up to you. He worships you. He wants to be just like you."  

Jacob: *skeptical look but still listening*

I pull out some baby pictures for effect. 

Me: "Look at this. You're sitting on the floor looking at supermarket flyers, just like Dad does, marker in hand. Now look at Ben. He's in his bouncy seat with a million toys attached to it, and what is he staring at?"

Jacob: "Me."

Me: "Here you are playing with your trains, and Ben is in his swing. What is he looking at?"

Jacob: "Me."

Me: "Like me and Dad, you've been a constant in his life since he was born. You've always been here, down on his level. You're a kid, like him, whereas we were the big adults. You're a boy, like him, where the other mainstay in his everyday world was me, a girl. He's been studying you since he could see, trying to figure out how to emulate you, and he still is. Only now you're a cool and talented teenager with lots of friends and he's a new freshman trying to find his way in high school. Of course he's going to copy you. You're living the best life and he's trying to figure out how to do the same. He loves you, Jacob. You're his awesome big brother, and always have been. He does these things because he wants your attention. But he's obnoxious because he doesn't want you to see how much it hurts when you dismiss him. He's hiding his vulnerability so you won't see his pain."

Well. This must have shocked Jacob because he didn't know what to say, other than, "Really?" He took some time to absorb it, and watch his brother to test my theory. 

What's happened since has been a seismic shift in the family dynamic. Jacob is patient with his brother, not short. He doesn't ignore Ben's questions as "coming from a little kid," but now seems to see them for what they are: a search for big-brother wisdom. They dab* and joke together. They work together in the morning--Jacob wakes Ben up and Ben does what he needs to to make sure they're out on time, since Jacob often drives them to school. Jacob suggests a stop at Dunkin' Donuts on the way to school, but it means getting up and leaving earlier; Ben rises to the challenge (no pun intended). This is a big deal because Ben is NOT a morning person. But at the request of his brother, he becomes one. 

The biggest change I've seen, though, is in the ripple effects in both boys. Ben's confidence is higher. He doesn't apologize all the time. He's not whiny. He seems more mature, and I know it's because he feels valued. Not just by his parents; their opinions don't mean the same thing. He feels valued and respected, in actions and words, by the person who most influences his life right now as he wades through the world of high school: his big brother. He's no longer playing the role of "annoying little sibling." He's less obnoxious, less guarded, more real.

Jacob also seems more confident. He's less defensive, and doesn't tense up when his brother's around, no longer waiting for the jab or interruption. No longer viewing himself as merely Ben's target for torment, he feels important because his brother cares deeply what he thinks and how he navigates the world. His actions have weight: someone important is watching and learning from them, so he is careful to make sure they matter, that they teach the right lessons. 

A family therapist I worked with once told me that helping to build the bond between siblings is the greatest gift a parent can give her children. At first I didn't really understand, but as I've grown older, I see how right she was. One day, my husband and I will be gone. All our boys will have left of our little family is each other. Each will be the only other person who remembers their shared childhood and the same family memories. How magical that they should be friends now, at this formative time of their lives. How inspiring that by shifting their views, they've come to understand each other's motives and thereby dropped their guards, no longer afraid to show their vulnerabilities. 

Yesterday Ben finally agreed to get a haircut (it was past time). When he was done, we went to the mall because he wanted a beanie. His brother has one and wears it all the time. Ben had tried it on and liked it, then decided he wanted one too. We looked at different patterns, styles and colors but in the end, he chose one exactly like his brother's. 

When he got home and showed his brother, Jacob didn't get angry that Ben was copying him. Instead, he gave him instructions on how to wear it, and this morning they left the house together in matching hats, their laughter echoing in the house long after they'd gone.

*Dab: To give a sharp nod to your raised forearm. Dance with sharp nods repeated. To acknowledge.