When The Student Becomes The Master (Sibling Edition)
My children are only 21 months apart. Not quite two years. I know people who say they’d never have kids that close together on purpose—heck, there are even studies suggesting both maternal health and sibling relationships benefit from wider spacing—but I’ve always liked that they’re so close. It means they’re often at the same school, often close in skill level, and can even sometimes share friends. (That last one is much more common now that they’re teens, but even when they were little, it was handy.)
I know plenty of only children who made it through their parents’ divorce intact, but I was extra grateful that they had each other when their dad and I split up. The first time they made the 1,000-mile journey back to their dad’s place after we moved, I hugged them both close and reminded them that no matter what, they always have each other. It was a comfort to me; I think it was a comfort to them, too.
Their paths diverged quite a bit during the tumultuous tween and early-teen years. My daughter battled her own demons, dealt with multiple hospitalizations, and even left us to live with her dad for a little while. In the meantime, my son left public school, and we embarked on a series of experiences with homeschooling, co-ops, and customizable education options, as we struggled to find the right overall fit for his needs. While we knew that his particular flavor of autism meant public middle school was not for him, striking the balance between the intellectual stimulation he wanted and the environment he really needed was a balancing act. Through it all, they seemed to miss each other. “She’s always so busy,” my son would lament, when things were going well. “I just want her home with us,” he’d say, when they weren’t. “Who’s going to look out for him if I’m not there?” my daughter said one day, surprising me. At times it seemed like she cared about nothing, and yet, she worried about him.
Last January, my son joined his sister at the high school. We transitioned him back with one semester of part-time enrollment, giving him a homeschool/public school hybrid for the spring. It meant a lot of adjustments all around, and as my son is not a fan of change (haaaaaa… I make myself laugh when I go all understatement, like that), he opted not to get involved in any extracurriculars that year. Just adjusting to high school was enough, for him. We did kind of strong-arm him into band, because marching band has been such a positive influence in my daughter’s life, and we knew we’d want him to try it out this year. Overall, things went well, and as of this fall, both kids are “regular” high school students (albeit regular students with some special needs and IEPs.)
My son is still easily overwhelmed and sometimes has meltdowns, and when they occur in his sister’s presence, she’s quick to try to soothe him. Sometimes she’s the only one who can talk him down; sometimes he gets angry with her and she throws up her hands and stomps away. It just depends. Now that they’re in marching band together, I see her both coaxing him along when needed and doling out some tough love when she feels like he needs to just man up. It’s also fascinating to watch her educate him on the finer points of high school; like, it’s okay to bring your Magic cards and find other kids who want to play, but only in the band room. She tells him which teachers are more flexible than others, and which hallways in their giant complex to avoid. He goes to her for questions about formatting homework, and to ask her to help him figure out the names of kids in his classes. (He is terrible with names, and somehow she seems to know everyone. The various, “It’s a boy with… hair? Maybe dark hair? About my height, in my Gov class?” “Oh, a boy with hair, okay!” sorts of back-and-forths as they work to decipher his environment crack me up.)
She is older, and arguably wiser (that depends on your point of view, of course), and he is happy to defer to her.
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when I was working out details for my son’s new weekly Dungeons & Dragons game—some friends with teens recently opened their campaign up to some more kids—and my daughter asked if she could go, too. I raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t play D&D,” I said.
“I could learn,” she said, with a shrug meant to convey that she didn’t care either way.
I checked with my son, worried that with this being the one activity that’s sort of “all his” he might not want her along. Instead, his face cracked into a huge smile. “Awesome!” he said. “I can get you a character sheet and we’ll get you all set up,” he added, to his sister.
Game day arrived and I dropped them both off with plenty of dice and snacks. Introductions were made—my daughter knew a few of the kids already, but not all of them—and I left as things got underway. When I returned three hours later, the gang around the table was rowdy and cheerful, fighting off giant mosquito-like creatures, rescuing one another, and unabashed in their commitment to conquering a haunted castle that doesn’t really exist.
In short: Everyone was having a blast.
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, since then, evenings have been spent with both kids poring over D&D manuals, character sheets, and spell cards. “So how many hit points do I get for this?” my daughter will ask. My son—unable to remember the name of his lab partner of the past 6 weeks in Physics—rattles off a manual’s worth of statistics with ease. She’s impressed, and asks him another question, probably just to see if he knows the answer off the top of his head (he does). “Ohhhh, what does this spell do?” she asks, showing him a card. He knows, of course. She listens with rapt attention while he talks. They laugh a lot. They are having fun together, doing something he loves, and I can see him puffing up a little bit to be the expert, for once, especially to his sister, whom he idolizes.
I never could’ve predicted this. But hey, it turns out that D20s are a lot more magical than I realized.