How I helped my middle son step out from his big brother’s shadow

He’d do anything his older brother told him to do. I wanted to make sure he felt confident to choose his own path.

Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Bradley

My house was overrun by dinosaurs for almost an entire year. My three sons (7, 5 and 3) were obsessed, and I found myself living in a pseudo-Jurassic World, drowning in dinosaur encyclopedias, pyjamas and dishware. Model dinosaurs were underfoot in every room, and the imaginative play du jour always included a variety of loud (but alarmingly accurate) dino sounds. Dinosaurs were all anyone talked about, even the youngest—and he could barely pronounce “brachiosaurus.”

This fascination started with my oldest son, an animal lover with a penchant for trivia. For him, the study of prehistoric creatures was the perfect fit. Because he is the oldest, he often gets to dictate what, where and how everyone plays together. If he decided that they all had to be velociraptors, then they would all be velociraptors—no questions asked.

It was cute to watch them play together, but it also made me wonder: Did all of my kids love dinosaurs as much as my oldest? Or were the other two just tagging along? After watching them more closely, I realized that my middle son’s interest in dinosaurs was pretty limited. Given a choice, he would rather be building wooden block castles, winding train tracks, magnetic tile towers and traffic jams with Matchbox cars. He was precise and careful in constructing his creations, and they would often hold his attention for an hour or more.

But if you asked him what he liked, he would say dinosaurs. As the proverbial middle child, he was willing to go along with his siblings’ whims to make everyone happy. While it’s hard to fault a people pleaser for considering everyone else’s feelings, I didn’t want my son to lose sight of his own interests. And even though it was sweet to see how much he loved his big brother and wanted to be just like him, I worried that he was beginning to idolize his sibling.  Two little girls in tutusWhat to do when one of your kids totally outshines the other

“When a younger child sees an older sibling doing something, it piques their interest to do the same thing,” says Roseanne Lesack, director of the child psychology clinic at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “They’re looking up to them, wanting to be older, and thinking, ‘Wow, it’s so cool to get all that praise and attention.’”

Hearing my oldest son get complimented on his encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs made my middle son feel like he needed to keep up. But I wanted to support his individual interests: If he liked building, I wanted him to build and feel confident in choosing a different path.

“In terms of self-esteem, it’s important to ensure that each child is comfortable doing what they want and saying how they feel,” says Lesack. “This helps children foster their own sense of preference and importance and find independence.”

I sought advice on how to help my middle child set himself apart from his older brother. Here’s what the experts said (and what happened when I tested out their advice).

1. Avoid labels

I thought it was helpful to say that we’re bookworms in our family or that one of my kids is the resident “dinosaur expert” and another is our “master builder.” We can’t all be good at everything, and making those remarks allowed me to acknowledge that everyone has their own natural strengths and weaknesses (and that’s OK!). But parenting expert Judy Arnall warns against this.

“Saying ‘Our family is good at math’ implies that kids have to keep up with their siblings,” explains Arnall, bestselling author of Attachment Parenting Tips: Raising Toddlers To Teens. “Also, saying ‘Jason is the math whiz in our family’ implies that this role is reserved for Jason and off limits to other siblings.”

What should we say instead? She recommends simply saying “Jason is good at math.” This was an easy fix: I still compliment my son’s building skills, but I do it outside the context of his role in our family (by telling him “You’re a great builder!”). That way, there’s no pressure on him to always be good at building and no limitations for our other kids regarding what they can and can’t do.

A little boy showing his lego to the camera
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Bradley

2. Pay close attention

As soon as I noticed that my son enjoyed building, I made sure that he had access to enough materials (like blocks and tiles), as well as the time and space to explore them. Lesack recommends looking closely at what kinds of activities your child naturally gravitates towards to because those are the things that could translate into eventual passions.

“Be thoughtful about what their skills are, what subjects they like in school and where they might want some extra enrichment,” she says. “Try things as a family, like playing soccer at the park or taking a pottery class. Get involved in less-structured activities to see where your child drifts.”

Since my efforts, I’ve seen some changes: My son has developed a love of Lego. He builds all kinds of vehicles to transport his Lego figures—everything from boats to trucks to airplanes. He can find the one minuscule piece needed for a motorcycle’s headlight in a pile of bricks (the Lego equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack). He used a bookstore gift card to buy books on Lego designs and confidently requested a Lego-themed birthday party. I even heard him tell his big brother that he was “too busy building” to play with dinosaurs!

3. Enlist friends and family for support

My son still struggles to do things without his big brother, but he is warming up to the idea of going solo. For a shy or reluctant child, enrolling them in a class with a friend might give them the dose of courage to try something new, says Lesack.

As for the logistics of getting everyone where they need to be—like when one child has a baseball game on one side of town and another child has a cello lesson on the other—carpool with other families as much as possible or ask friends and family members for help with pickup and drop-off. It’s tempting to enroll a younger child in whatever activities their sibling participates in for the sake of convenience, but it’s important to allow each child the opportunity to choose activities for themselves.

If carpooling or ride sharing isn’t feasible for your family, Lesack suggests alternating schedules so that each child gets a chance to have their interests prioritized (that is, once an older sibling has finished their sport or activity of choice, the younger sibling gets a chance to do whatever they want). “This has the added bonus of teaching your kids the importance of sharing and taking turns,” she says.

 4. Focus your praise on actions, not activities

Shifting a child’s attention to their standout qualities and characteristics (rather than their achievements) can also prompt them to reflect on their interests. For example, a child who is praised for being compassionate may search for opportunities to apply those skills in other scenarios.

“Constantly assure your kids that you are proud of what they do and who they are,” says Arnall. “Be specific, like saying ‘I love how kind you are to others when we are out and about by holding doors for people.’”

With my son, I try to focus my compliments on the skills he uses to build rather than the outcome by saying things like “You built a strong base for that tower!” or “It looks like you took your time with this train track!” so that he sees the value in his concentration and effort. It’s a work in progress: Though he is much more confident overall, I still remind him every day that he doesn’t have to do, say or like the same things as his older brother. I remind him that he can be different, and that can be a good thing.

In fact, my middle son’s different interests have been good for all of my kids. Both my oldest and youngest kids like to build with Lego bricks now, too. Last week, they all worked together, heads bent together over the playroom table, to build a Lego velociraptor (dinosaurs don’t rule the house anymore, but I don’t think they’ll ever really go extinct). There, in the centre of their efforts, was my middle child, grinning as he told his brothers what pieces they needed and where to put them.

I might not be able to change my middle son’s people-pleasing nature, but I can make sure that one of the first people he pleases is himself. Thanks to some confidence-boosting Lego bricks, I think he is well on his way.

This article was originally published online in September 2018.

Read more:
What happened when my older kid asked me I love him or his brother more
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