Conscientious, cooperative, and eager to please…a first-born, right? The rebellious, overly competitive, attention seeking kids — they came later. It may be oversimplistic pop psychology without much research supporting it. Still, most parents will tell you that birth order is helpful as a prism through which they can understand their kids’ personality differences. (Asterisk* “Different, not better.”)
Ben, my 7-year-old who has autism, shows occasional signs of becoming the first-born that he is, despite serious impairments with speech and eye contact. Autism has not killed his instinct to please. It has not killed his sunny disposition, nor stopped him from trying in the most endearing ways to be helpful and conscientious–though not always with the desired outcome.
When I see Ben pick up after himself, put his dishes in the sink without being told, or bring in the old soda can that Daddy let rust outside, I cannot help but smile to myself. Part of the pleasure comes from the fact that Ben’s good deeds are not announced. Unlike his younger brother Ryan, Ben prefers to fly under the radar. He is a silent donor. He doesn’t care about the recognition. Ryan, on the other hand, spends as much time promoting his good deeds as he does doing them (I kid Mr. Ryan, in case he reads this years later and has a beef with me. Also, I am told I need to make full disclosures where there might be a conflict of interest. Yes, it is true, I am a second-born. Big surprise there.)
These moments, I believe, are a glimpse into Ben’s true first-born nature. I can see the boy he was supposed to become before autism reared its ugly head and took him and his family for a big detour. Ben still has some first-born juice left; like his speech, it hasn’t vanished entirely. From this small realization I acquire hope.
Ryan, per the second-born model, is, like his daddy, too competitive for his own good. The other day at the park, a nice kid reached out to him, and instead Ryan chose to engage him in a race, the whole time screaming “I run faster!” Our new pastime: I rip off chunks of my dad’s ice plant (sure he appreciates this) and charge Ryan, who does his best to dodge the incoming missile. I’ve nailed him pretty good on a few occasions. (No you’re not calling Child Protective Services on me, because, trust me, Ryan doesn’t hesitate to retaliate; and besides, we always have a blast!).
When Ryan was 2, a speech delay caused worry that he too was autistic. For a while, he received speech therapy through the school. When you see him now, he is full of life, verbal and quick, playful and sweet. He is an attention junky who, when he doesn’t get his fix, can be ornery. He recently pulled off a well orchestrated protest, boycotting Daddy for two weeks until he got his “big boy” car seat. (Typical second-born manipulative behavior. Trust me, I know.)
The good news is that I see a greater sense of self emerging in Ben. I hear him declare “No!” to his little brother when he tries to provoke him. Other times he calls in air support. When I hear the cry of “Daddy,” I am there in a heartbeat, like an NFL ref throwing down the flag. “Ryan, why do you think that is okay! Time out! Yes, I said it. Deal!”
Now that Ben is asserting his independence, we might have a battle looming for the title of leader. Could be fun. I don’t take sides, of course, but let’s just say I like to root for the underdog.
“That first-born mantle is still yours for the taking, bud, if you wish to claim it.” That’s what I would like to tell him.
Go Ben, Go!
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