When older siblings don’t want to play anymore

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

“I hate being the smallest,” Gabriel mutters. He’s smashed himself into the corner of the sofa, arms folded, staring darkly at the half-finished cabin of Lincoln Logs on the floor. “I wish I had a little sister. Or a brother.”

I search for the right words to empathize without eliciting the tears I know he’s fighting. “You know,” I point out, “I was the smallest in my family too.”

“Yeah, but you had a brother. I wish I had a brother instead.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I say sharply, and Gabriel’s face crumbles.

“I just mean…I like my sister, but I wish I had a brother too,” he says. I sit next to him, pull him into my arms and chide myself for overreacting.

My son is nine, a ceaseless, showering burst of energy—he climbs, tumbles, runs, jumps, spins, skates, pogos, and pedals. Even when he’s on his tablet, meticulously constructing entire cities out of blocks, he moves—shifting, bouncing, kicking his feet and slinging his legs over the lap of anyone sitting nearby.

Gabriel’s sister and once inexhaustible playmate, Abbey, is fourteen—she studies, reads, writes, draws, crafts, texts, dances in her room. Her room is where she is at the moment, having gently declined her brother’s third request this afternoon to come out and play. The cabin of Lincoln Logs stands as a testament to the half hour she devoted to him already this Sunday morning, but that is not enough for Gabriel.

It’s neither child’s fault. Abbey loves her little brother dearly; she has simply outgrown him. I can’t place the month or even the year when this occurred—when did she stop chasing him at the park in favor of sprawling on the quilt and reading her Kindle? When did she first choose to stand by the inflatable jumper at the school carnival to watch over Gabriel, instead of climbing in after him? Although she is still a child, there’s no doubt Abbey has crossed the boundary that places her nearer adulthood, and Gabriel feels left behind.

Yet in his own way, Gabriel has outgrown Abbey too—the nurturing role my daughter adopted early as his big sister, a role he once welcomed, is one he now vehemently rejects. Her shows of nearly motherly affection toward him, whether a tousle of his hair or concern when he’s mounting his bicycle without a helmet, must sting—the way it stings that he’s now the only one offered the kid’s menu at restaurants.

“He always gets mad at me,” Abbey said recently when I asked her to spend some time with her brother.

“That’s because he can tell you don’t want to play with him anymore,” I whispered, well aware that Gabriel had stationed himself around the corner, waiting for the verdict. “He acts mad because he’s hurt. Can’t you at least pretend you’re having fun?”

She stared at me helplessly, and I understand—I do. Abbey attends a rigorous high school academy; she has hours of homework every night. She doesn’t want to spend her limited free time engaging in lightsaber battles or racing up and down the street playing cowboys. “Can you just watch half an hour of the Goonies with him?” I asked softly. “I’ll make popcorn.”

She smiled, but with effort, knowing as well as I that ten minutes into the movie he’d dismantle the couch to build a pirate ship out of the cushions. “Okay.”

“What’d she say?” Gabriel asked when I rounded the corner.

“She’ll be right out,” I said brightly, feeling terrible for them both.

It was a feeling I’d become far too acquainted with, one that escalated a few days later when Abbey had a friend over after school. Gabriel, whose school day ends an hour after his sister’s, walked in to the boisterous sound of the girls’ laughter ringing through the hallway. He froze, then slammed the front door and stormed away to the family room.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, surprised at this sudden outburst. He threw himself down on the sofa, and then, in a moment of raw and aching clarity, he said, “How come Abbey never laughs like that with me anymore?”

“Oh, Gabriel.” I sat with him while he cried—a rare event for my proud fourth grader. I told him a truth that he doesn’t believe but one day will: that his sister loves him more than anyone in the world and no one could ever take his place.

Now, sitting on the same sofa amid a scattering of Lincoln Logs, I hold my son and brace for more tears. But he simply lets out a single frustrated sigh. I stroke his glossy brown curls, and he squeezes me tighter, then pulls away and looks up with tentative hope.

“Do you want to play in the clubhouse with me?” he asks. “We can be the Black Pearl or the Flying Dutchman, and you can be Elizabeth?”

“Of course I do,” I say. After all, it’s my job to be there for him when no one else is. It’s 95 degrees in the shade, I have a dozen things on my to-do list, but I sprint for the backyard like I’ve been waiting all day for him to ask. One moment’s pause would have betrayed me.

Gabriel is a frenzy of motion, zipping across the room to collect every weapon in his arsenal—plastic swords, flintlocks, rifles, daggers, shields. Outside, I climb the wobbly rope ladder to a platform I feel much too big for, laughing despite myself. When our children are small and rely on us as their playmates, we devote ourselves to the task, even when it means whole afternoons playing hide-and-seek or having tea parties. It’s easy to forget how fulfilling it can be to embrace that role again, if only for a day.

“Where’s the captain of this ship?” I demand, shielding my eyes and squinting across an imaginary sea. “The enemy’s gaining!”

“I’m coming, Mommy,” Gabriel cries, stumbling into the backyard with an armful of toys and a grin brighter than the sun. “Roll out the cannons!”

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo’s essays have appeared in Brevity Magazine, Literary Mama, Phoenix New Times, Mothers Always Write, Babble, and Brain, Child. She is also an award-winning fiction writer. Links to Elizabeth’s work can be found on her website at elizabethmarianaranjo.com

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