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Sunday, February 28, 2016

It used to be that people took my boys for twins all the time.

They do resemble each other a bit, I guess; they both have blue eyes and blondish hair. For a long time, they were even the same height, although I think one has finally passed the other for good.
Lately, though, people think Sam is the elder. They refer to Jim as “your little brother,” and it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s not their stature, or even their relative level of accomplishment. It’s the dynamic between them.

Sam takes care of Jim – not in the way of a parent or adult, but in the way older siblings have. He looks out for him. He encourages him. And Jim, in turn, looks up to him. (When he’s not trying to bait him or otherwise drive him nuts. They are siblings, after all.)

I started thinking about this a few days ago, when I was trying desperately to accomplish a certain task during the evening. Jim was getting frustrated about something; I could hear it in his voice, and I made a mental note to help out as soon as I had my hands free. Then that note of frustration ... vanished.

I glanced over and saw my boys, heads bent together as the younger showed the older how to figure out the problem he’d been having. He demonstrated, then had Jim do it for himself, correcting him when necessary. Then he went back to what he’d been doing before the whole thing started.
It was over in minutes. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It can’t be easy, being the sibling of a child with special needs.

It is easy, as a frazzled parent, to simply be grateful when you see scenes like the one I described, to realize that you now have a little bit of extra backup in the form of the sibling. And it’s all part of working together as a family, after all.

But there are times things are complicated by that difference in the family. Times plans are derailed because of issues with crowds and sensory issues and the fact that one child needs that constant supervision. Times when the more self-sufficient sibling doesn’t get quite as much attention because the other sibling simply needs it more. And, unfortunately, times when you just have to say, “I’m sorry. We can’t do that because your brother couldn’t handle it.”

And because they help out so often, it can be so easy to take them for granted, to forget that they’re only kids too. They’re held to a higher standard. As parents, you get so used to the younger child acting as the older that sometimes you forget he’s only in elementary school himself.

So, what’s a parent to do? All I can say is, we try really hard to make sure we don’t expect him to step up too much. We say “thank you” and “I appreciate it” when he does. We find ways to work around the things his brother can’t handle, even if it means Jim gets to hang out with his grandparents for a day while the rest of us do something else. If we can’t give full attention at one moment, we always try to do it as soon as we can.

Here’s to the siblings. They’re growing up with an extra dose of compassion and understanding and self-sufficiency. It’s not always easy, but they shoulder the task.

And they’re going to grow into better people because of it.

+Jill Keppeler thinks we could use more compassion in this day and age. Follow her on Twitter @JillKeppeler or email her at

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