Struggles of Sandwiched Child

Q: We are the parents of seven children, bli ayin hara, and feel that our second child is kind of losing his identity, being sandwiched in as he is between two intense brothers. Our second child — let’s call him Avi — is a little spaced-out, he doesn’t speak too clearly, and is not the best in learning. He would rather play with electronics all day, and doesn’t mind babysitting (“playing”) with his younger siblings.

For third grade we put him in a less mainstream school than his brothers, as we felt that the pressure of the school he was in was too much for him. Also, classmates would sometimes tease him and he didn’t know how to respond to them.

He is happier in his new school; he gets more individual attention in a smaller class and this has helped him focus more. However, in relation to his brothers, I feel like both of them are on totally different wave lengths than he is.

His older brother, who is 13, can be quite condescending, and he feels that he is the frummest person in the family. He thinks that Avi is not serious enough about anything, and he has little patience for him. He also excels academically.

His younger brother, a 9-year-old, is not a particularly easy child. He is a deep thinker who analyzes everything that is happening around him. But he asks good questions in class, and his Rebbi greatly appreciates his participation.

Avi, however, gets lost in the shuffle. Both of his brothers can simply ignore him — for hours.

My husband and I teach every day, and work on kiruv projects throughout the year. Sunday excursions to the zoo or family outings, except for Chol Hamoed, don’t fit into our schedules. How can we better work to mesh these different personalities together?

A: You are a perceptive mother in seeing the need to improve sibling relationships. Though it is often very difficult to fine-tune sibling relationships, at least acting as a role model of tolerance and compromise is a great gift to give to our children.

Patterns of siblings ignoring one another can be repeated in one’s marriage in the future, as it has become a learned, albeit destructive, coping mechanism. Yet children’s sibling relationships do not always define their relationships as adults, as their personalities may change. Nonetheless, general attitudes and behaviors towards one another always require tolerance and positive regard in order to maintain healthy relationships.

Is there some common denominator that your three sons share? A certain interest or sense of enthusiasm that reflects some type of family project?

You mention that you’re involved in kiruv projects throughout the year. Do your children work together with you on these? Stressing what unites us helps to downplay our differences.

Explaining to your oldest son the need not to be condescending seems to be of little value. Those who feel the need to “put down the other” receive the immediate gratification of feeling higher. Those with “righteous indignation” think that Hashem is behind them, and they can’t be convinced otherwise. When a parent attempts to help give the benefit of the doubt, such a child can become infuriated that their parent can’t see the truth!

Providing a venue for the siblings’ positive character traits to shine, such as in the kiruv projects that you mentioned — which are not connected to the academic sphere, where your children’s abilities greatly differ — can only be helpful.

Quoting positive things that a sibling may have said to a parent about his or her brother or sister can also help improve their relationship. If such positive comments are not volunteered, a parent can comment on an act of kindness that they noticed between siblings, and a child can then comment on his appreciation of these actions. That comment of appreciation can then be relayed to the other sibling. If each child feels that some aspect of his character and general personality is appreciated by his siblings, antagonism decreases.

Giving the benefit of the doubt when one loses patience with the other is a major tool that parents need to attempt to instill in their children. And focusing on the positive facets of each family member helps to eventually improve communication skills and familial relationships.