The Burden of Being The Oldest

I have been thinking about this post for weeks but have not had a quiet moment to sit and right it until now. I have been feeling painfully protective of Gabriel lately. The necessity of mothers and fathers everywhere to hang back and hold your breath and watch your small (and big) child exist in the world becomes harder and harder the older they get and the more injustice and mean-spirited crap they face. I am just at the very beginning of all that.

But more than Gabe telling me that so-and-so doesn’t like him or someone at school doesn’t want to play with him, I am most protective over his interactions with adults.

When you are the only 3.5-4 year old at any event. When the other kids are babies and young toddlers, who are adorable even in their tantrums, whose desires are simple, who have only a few demanding words – it’s hard. I hear all of his questions, his attempt at organizing the world, his energy level, his magnetism to touch all the things he shouldn’t touch and play with all of the things he shouldn’t play with and I feel self-conscious for him. While other babies and his little sister toddle around, picking things up that we don’t want them to have, we chase after them, removing things from their iron grips or redirecting them to tissue paper. But with an older child we say, “No Gabriel. Don’t play with that. Put that down please. That’s not a toy,” or “Gabriel, gentle! Be gentle!” or “Not over there, Gabe. Stay out of that room.” And it’s not cruel scolding or even really a raised voice, but there is a sternness there, that only he is subject to.

Babies and young toddlers are adorable inconveniences. Older kids can be, genuinely, exhausting. But Gabriel isn’t actually doing anything wrong. He’s playing, or he is excited, or he is exploring, or he is talking without any volume control, or he isn’t hungry but needs to sit at the table anyway, or he has no awareness of his own physical space.

Almost every day at daycare pickup I have to hear about something Gabriel did that wasn’t awesome. Whether he bumped his head (oh well) or he smacked another kid with a block because they were continually pushing over his tower (not great but probably deserved) or if he didn’t eat the food that day (not surprised) or if he was “overly excited” (wtf he is a little kid) or if he was sensitive (he has big feelings) or he was grabbing kids faces (wtf Gabriel) or WHATEVER it is…. I get that update. And it makes me really uncomfortable.

I have great respect for teachers and assessments and if my kids turn out to suffer from a learning disability or have a behavioral issue that needs to be addressed, I want to be 100% on board. But I also don’t want Gabe to be labeled a bad kid because he is an energetic, goofy, theatrical, goober face. He is super loving, who has big feelings, who is still learning to follow directions and listen with his ears. I don’t want him to feel like he is a bad kid, because he isn’t.

I don’t think that Gabe is forever being scolded at school. I think his preschool is teaching all of those little hoodlums how to be actual humans in the world. How to sit in a seat. How to respect personal space bubbles. How to pick up after themselves. But these little picky feedbacks I receive paired with parenting being a constant lesson in picking my battles, consistency, and kindness, plus my sensitivity to his interactions within our social group – it has me feeling sad for him. He is still so little and I want him to be treated with patience and kindness. I don’t want people to see him as this giant limbed energizer bunny bound to destroy all things breakable. (I mean, he is, but he is also so much more!)

As kids grow they get more complicated. Gabe doesn’t stay where you put him. He gets himself up after naps. He gets his own milk out of the fridge. He wants to know why. He can acknowledge when his feelings are hurt. He hears what you’re saying to him and chews on it. A few days after he’s done something wrong he will often say to me (while in the car or during quiet moments) “Mama, I’m sorry I broke daddy’s glasses,” or “Mama, I’m sorry I splashed all the water out of the bath.”

In a lot of ways babies are more fun. They are so cute. Even when Fae adamently says “Nnnnnno!” I just want to scoop her up and cuddle her. When Gabe says, “NO!” I repeat what I’ve asked him to do and say, “If you don’t pick up the thing you threw on the floor by the time I count to three you’re going to be in timeout.”

I don’t want the bulk of his interactions to be negative. I don’t want the world to view him as exhausting. I worry they do because he is, but he is also so many other fantastic things too. I hold my breath and watch him exist in the world. But I also tell him how amazing he is.

6 thoughts on “The Burden of Being The Oldest”

  1. Longtime lurker, very occasional commenter, and had to come out just to say thank you! I have two just about the same age as yours and I feel all of this! I struggle so hard to balance the positive in with the discipline for my oldest. And I find some comfort thinking that at least he gets to do some cool things my younger doesn’t get yet. Although that also makes me feel bad for the little one – she wants so badly to do everything her big brother can! So tough. But you put it into words beautifully.

  2. Just came in to say thank you for writing this. I have a 3 year old daughter who is fun, smart, and loving, but also very sensitive, has a ton of energy and is strong willed and just tough sometimes. I also think of how little she is and how sometimes all of her daily interactions feel so negative. Not much insight, but just wanted to say, I hear you and it sucks.

  3. How is it that you always know my thoughts and worries? We’ve been getting a lot of reports lately about Elliott being aggressive and hitting/pushing other kids. My report yesterday said that they have tried everything and that nothing works for too long. I’m upset from so many parts of me. Obviously, the mom part wants to know what is going on. Is it the communication delays? The increase demands on his time and energy since starting preschool 1/2 day? Is it still being in a room with 2 year olds when he is almost 3.5 (They won’t move him because he’s not potty-trained–don’t get me started)? But the school psychologist side of me is also on edge. You know, the part that has a graduate degree in behavior modification. I can’t be the main person on this because I’m a) not impartial and b) not there to see it all go down. Elliott isn’t aggressive at home, not really. I’m going in to meet with his daycare teacher on Friday because I just feel for this little boy who is navigating a world that is hard to navigate when communication is hard.

    Ugh. Hugs to you and Gabe. Parenting is not for wimps. Growing up is not for the faint of heart, either.

  4. The age that Gabe is in now is just one of those tricky ages, not yet able to exercise a great level of self-control but also not the cute little baby anymore. I have seen two of my children past this age and have another who is I think exactly the same age as Gabe. I can tell you that just being his advocate and gently guiding him through with positivity will get him out the other side. One more year and it becomes sooooo much easier. I find that when they move past preschool into school and have had that positive stable reassurance from home they settle down and it is more about great conversations and exploring the world together and much less about being that kid at friend events who is constantly having to be corralled and reminded.
    Also, and I don’t know this for sure, but from your posts and photos it seems like you might be the first person in your close group of friends to have a child and so Gabe is the older one and now that they are having their babies his bigness and difficulty seems more pronounced when you’re together. Well, if that is so, by the time that he is settling more into his little body and his world and becoming a much easier companion at get-togethers your friends’ cute little toddlers will become those difficult ones, hehe.

  5. Such a good mom. <3

    This is hard. I remember being in this situation, and feeling like everyone hated me. As a mom, I remember that it takes 4 positive interactions to every negative one to balance them out, and I try to cram in as much positives as possible when I can. (That's probably not science, I just learned it somewhere and have no backup).

    One time I asked daycare "do you guys not like him? Do you think he's a bad kid?" when all I'd gotten was the bad feedback. They were kind of taken aback and then realized what they were doing and seemed to do a lot better. So much of this is just the age! It's developmentally appropriate!

  6. Hi – it’s been so long since I checked by your blog and I’m not sure If I’ve ever left a comment but … this post really resonated with me. My just four year old sounds so similar to Gabe. She is exhausting! But incredible.And I do worry that I am too hard on her especially in contrast to her 1 year old sister who you’re right, is so cute and fun. She is at preschool two days a week and it’s the kind of place where kids are loved and respected for exactly who they are, and I’m grateful for that. She’s had a lot of change in her short life and I know it can affect her behavior so we try to be gentle with that. But I am also going to remind her often how absolutely amazing she is.

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