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The Middle Place

It's not easy being 'tween

My seven year old, Aden, is doing his own version of the Hokey Pokey lately.

He’s got one foot in the preteen world, and the other in Lego and Dora-land. Trying to keep up with his 11-year-old brother, and still connected to his 5-year-old brother, Aden is knee deep in middle child syndrome. It’s a rough struggle to watch. 

Part of the challenge of parenting is discovering who your kid is. Even if you think you’ve figured out your first one, the second’s unique personality makes rearing him or her a totally different experience.

My oldest, Jacob, has always been mature, self-confident and driven. Nearly every day, he rushes home from school to do homework before running outside to play sports with his friends. Aden is sweet, sensitive, mellow and temperamental. Sometimes when he gets off the school bus, I see the engines in his brain turning as he tries to figure out what he wants to do. Should he beg Jacob to let him tag along for a pick-up football game or build spaceships with Eli on the playroom floor?

There are days when Aden’s ready to be social and active, and on others he needs a snack and time alone. But no little brother wants to feel like he’s missing something, so often he will try to keep up with Jacob, even when he lacks the energy. Then when things don’t go his way, he can dissolve into a puddle of tears.

If Jacob is around, the only TV shows Aden will watch are sports or teen sitcoms and he scoffs at anything animated. If big brother is out, Aden loves to cuddle under a blanket on the couch with Eli watching “Tom and Jerry” or “Scooby Doo.”

Jacob often spends the night at friends’ houses, prompting Aden to want sleepovers too, but there’s always a price to pay. Aden lacks the endurance to stay up late at night and get through our normal busy weekend schedule, so he’s prone to meltdowns. We limit sleepovers for his own good, but that can make him bitter and jealous.

I guess I’ll never know if being the second of three boys exacerbates this betwixt period. Seven seems to be a transition time for many kids as they still relish their juvenile interests while experimenting with older activities and separating from mom and dad. Every child asserts independence at their own pace — usually when they discover their parents aren’t as much fun as their friends.

Aden’s experience in the middle always provides him the option of aging up or down. Maybe he’s lucky to have the choice.

It doesn’t help that my boys are extremely competitive and entirely too driven to win. Aware of those inclinations, we’ve tried to focus on fun, but it often feels like they’re in a perpetual race for athletic prowess, superior academics, and the most family attention.

My mama bear protective instincts come out in force when one of them scorns another. I know that sibling rivalry and bickering is part of growing up, and perhaps even makes them stronger and better able to deal with the cutthroat world. But it still tears up my insides when one taunts or manipulates his brother.

Most days, my sons play beautifully, laughing and burrowing in the basement for hours creating a tent city or organizing a basketball contest. But there are times when they snipe at each other like feral animals in the wild. 

One thing I won’t tolerate is deliberate malice. Sometimes Jacob purposefully makes Aden feel small. It kills me because I know how much Aden needs Jacob’s approval. Jacob is also aware of the power he wields, and abuses it when he’s in the mood.

What’s interesting is that Aden is inherently sweet, so on the rare occasion when he turns around to provoke Eli — the way Jacob torments him — he doesn’t do it with the same gusto.

Aden likes it best when he doesn’t have to choose between his brothers, or share them with friends or family. When it’s just the three of them together, he doesn’t have to feel the pressure to act older or younger. He can just be Aden.

Despite the typical fighting, I hope my boys will always be close. Perhaps at some point in his development, Aden will realize it’s better to be in the middle, than be all alone. 

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