Family relationships are weird. I have observed before that sometimes we treat complete strangers better than we do people we are related to and, presumably, have some level of affection for. My younger sons Charlie and Elijah push the limits of fraternal relationships. They will fight like demons over ownership of a months-old Happy Meal toy found between the car seat cushions and have epic shouting matches over who gets to look out of what window. Lately I have seen examples of two kids just being mean to each other for no particular reason. I have been worried about them and their relationship and their bond. Turns out I shouldn’t have been worried.
Yesterday Charlie and Elijah came home from school. Charlie came through the back door yelling for his mother. That is unusual because normally they come through the door begging for food and explaining how hard the walk from the bus stop was without proper supplies. Elijah was quiet as he came in the house. Quiet Elijah is unusual just because.
I indicated that I was downstairs and Charlie came stomping. His face was tear-streaked. Between sobs he explained how he and his best friend (we will call him Bob) had a huge fight that culminated in words that would be very, very hard to take back. He was crushed. All five-feet five inches and 175 pounds of Charlie climbed into my lap. He sobbed uncontrollably as he recounted how his friend had angrily grabbed and stomped on his backpack. Eli sat in a lounge chair in our man-cave and looked sadly at his brother.
I held Charlie close. I wasn’t sure what to say or do so I just held him . . . as best I can hold somebody who is basically my size and sitting in my lap. I tried to listen and calm him down. I wanted to tell him that it would be ok and that it wasn’t as bad as he thought but I know how much I appreciate my emotions being mitigated when I am really upset. So I just held him.
I looked up and Elijah was standing next to us. “Charlie?,” he asked softly. “Is it ok if I hug you?” At 11 years old, hugs from his little brother aren’t Charlie’s favorite. I waited to see what he would do. Between sobs Charlie reached out and embraced Elijah. “I’m sorry he was so mean to you, Charlie,” he said. “I am sorry you are so sad.” From somewhere in the pile of Charlie came a mumbled ‘thank you’. After several minutes of hugs the sobs quieted. I asked Charlie if he wanted to take a snack up to his room. His recovery became more advanced at the thought of a sugar cookie or two. We went to the kitchen.
Sad Charlie took his snack and iPad up to his room. I looked around for Elijah. I found him sitting next to the door putting on his shoes and jacket. “Are you going to play outside, buddy?” I asked. “It’s kind of cold.”
“No,” he answered. “I am going to Bob’s house.”
I immediately assumed the side-eye position. This couldn’t be good. “Why?” I asked.
“I’m gonna beat him up,” he said with a straight face.
I tried not to smile as I looked down at my little sack of hair and sincerity. “Do you think that is a good idea?”
He nodded gravely. “He made Charlie sad,” Eli told me. “And I’m gonna whoop his ass.”
Ever have that moment when you fully realize that what your child says and intends is inappropriate, but you still want to laugh out loud anyway. Yeah . . . like this moment. I fought for control. He was serious and sincere and as committed as a 6-year-old can be. But the way his voice dropped an octave or two on the word ‘whoop’ was adorable.
NOTE: I would like my readers to understand that ‘whoop his ass’ is not now nor has it ever been a phrase that is uttered in our house. I blame the media.
I picked him up and sat him on my lap. He hugged me tightly as I explained he couldn’t go to Bob’s house and whoop anything. Charlie would have to handle this his way. Even though it isn’t appropriate to ‘whoop’ a person’s ass . . . or anything else . . . I was proud of him for wanting to help his brother.
“I love my Charlie,” he explained. “I don’t like to see him sad.”
I worked hard to keep my melting heart in my chest. In his way, Eli looks out for Charlie. Charlie works hard to develop his cognitive processing functions and executive functions. Social relationships can be tough for him. Simple tasks like following instructions or even remembering to pick up clothes on the floor or toys in the living room can be hard. That is not a problem that Charlie owns alone to be sure, but those type of things tend to be tough for him. Eli will frequently help Charlie out when he thinks nobody is looking. Don’t get me wrong, he will still happily fling his brother under any convenient bus, but sometimes Elijah helps him out as well.
I held Elijah and remembered a very similar situation that happened when I was about 10. It was during recess at Morton Elementary School in Hastings, Nebraska. I was on the play ground being harassed by another kid. I remember his name, but that’s not important. This kid was much smaller than I was, but he had several brothers who were all older and bigger. This group of kids were not . . . shall we say . . . great scholars . . . so they were all bigger and older than typical elementary students. My antagonist would not have dared pick on me under normal circumstances, but with the protection of his older siblings he was simply tolerated.
At some point this kid physically pushed me. Suddenly his world erupted into a blur of sandy hair, flashing Converse sneakers and brown and blue Bobby-Brady-striped shirt. The kid was lying in a pile of gravel under the Jungle Gym with another smaller kid going all spider monkey on him. My antagonist was shrieking as a tornado in patched jeans lit him up.
It took me a split second to realize that my little brother Randal had come running from the little kid play ground and dealt some justice to the kid he saw giving me a hard time. I pulled Randal off and made sure he wasn’t hurt.
“LET ME GO! LET ME GO!” he yelled.
“It’s over . . . It’s over,” I told my brother. “It’s okay.”
I looked down at my little berserker. He and I fought like wildcats and sometimes we hated that we were breathing each other’s air . . . but he ran across a school lot for me. He seemed a little less dorky.
My antagonist announced loudly that he would tell his brothers and we would be sorry. I couldn’t have cared less at the moment. His brothers weren’t that hard to deal with. I smiled. “When you tell them,” I called after him. “Make sure you tell them a 7-year-old kicked your butt.”
He stopped and pondered for a minute. Then he went to the monkey bars.
I told Eli the story about his uncle and the playground. He laughed. He explained again that Bob was mean to Charlie. I asked some questions about the role that Charlie played in the situation. He didn’t know specifics because he didn’t see everything. I wasn’t surprised. Eli was only interested in Charlie’s feelings. Nothing else mattered.
As the day went on, more information came to light. My wife talked to the other boy’s mother and more information was shared. After awhile it was pretty clear it was a bid misunderstanding wrapped in 11-year-old perspectives. Things will be alright.
This morning there was the typical yelling and arguing that is typical on a school day at our house. Somebody looked at somebody else’s breakfast or something. Things are back to normal. But I understand my sons better than I did before. Last night before Elijah went upstairs to bed I saw Charlie hug him. I wasn’t supposed to see because . . . well that wouldn’t be very cool. But I saw. They will fine, I just need to trust them a little more. They will take care of each other.
Thanks for reading and sharing. We’ll see you again soon on This Side of the Diaper.