Living with Children: Mishaps with older brother


QUESTION: Our soon to be 5-year-old son enjoys playing with his 14-month-old brother, but there have been three times recently when the baby has started crying and when I check, big brother has a guilty look on his face.

So far, the baby has suffered a scratch under one eye, a red mark on his face where a ball hit him, and a bruised forehead from falling over. When big brother is banished to his room for these incidents, he is more upset about being punished than about hurting his brother.

His lack of remorse bothers us. As a result, we’ve put baby brother off limits for a time. Are we expecting too much?

ANSWER: I think you may be jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

Let’s face it, folks, when a 5-year-old boy and a 14-month-old boy interact on a daily basis, the younger one is bound to experience occasional pain. This is the almost inevitable consequence of having two boys, and you are going to go slowly insane if you assign yourself to the impossible task of preventing this from happening.

For at least the next three to four years, until the physical disparity begins to level out, the younger one will experience more play-related insult than the older one. In and of itself, this isn’t bad. It’s just the way it is. Boy play tends to be rough at times.

Furthermore, the fact that big brother even wants to play with a 14-month-old is a good sign, an early indication of a growing relationship. Count your lucky stars that signs do not point to early resentment on the part of your first-born.

Furthermore, you may be misinterpreting big brother’s reaction to being punished for these incidents. You think he lacks remorse. I think he’s justifiably upset at having been punished for something he didn’t intend to do.

For example, if I’m trying to stay within the speed limit, but I fail to see a “Reduce Speed Ahead” sign and I’m ticketed for speeding, I’m not going to be remorseful. I’m going to be upset (albeit careful not to let the officer know). After all, it was not my intention to speed.

On the other hand, if I’m intentionally speeding, trying to shave time off a trip, and I’m pulled over, I’m going to accept the ticket, apologize to the officer, and be a better citizen in the future.

I have a strong feeling that your older son is being “ticketed” for unintentionally exceeding his younger brother’s “speed limit.” Under the circumstances, I’d fully expect him to be more upset than remorseful. He’s being punished for being, at worst, clumsy.

When incidents of this sort happen, you should take the opportunity to help big brother understand the baby’s limits. For example: “I know you want to teach your brother to play catch, but you can’t teach a baby to catch by throwing things at him.” Then, help him learn ways of playing that won’t involve risk of pain to the baby, as in, “Roll the ball instead of throwing it.” You also need to praise him for his attempts to be such a good big brother, however awkward they may be at times.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond: Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond]