The best part of my day is when I come home from work and my kids race to greet me at the door, screaming, “Dad!” This won’t last forever — there will come a time when I return from a long day only to find disaffected teens slumping on the couch and staring at their phones (perhaps doing me the favor of mumbling a quick, “Hi dad”), but for now, Annie, 8, and James, 5, jump into my arms, plant kisses, and ask me to swing them in the air.
I remain a V.I.P. in my kids’ eyes as we move into the kitchen and eat dinner. There, words tumble out of their tiny mouths as fast as they can manage, telling me about their days at school (never anything about the classroom, but endless tales from the playground), the latest kid craze (Annie and her classmates are currently obsessed with doing the “floss” dance), and asking me questions…lots of questions (of which, presently, at least 85% are about The Avengers). I love these mile-a-minute conversations, especially because they’re my chance to really engage with my kids after a day away from home. But recently I found out that — while both of my kids also enjoy our time together — they’re not enjoying it equally.
“Dad,” James asked one night as I was tucking him. “Can you and I talk together the way you and Annie do every night?”
This knocked me for a loop. My initial reaction was to think, What do you mean? It’s all three of us talking every night! But, as I thought about it some more, I realized that it was the older, more verbal Annie who did most of the talking, with little James’ head swiveling back and forth between his sister and me like he was watching a tennis match.
James wasn’t mad or disappointed as he waited for my response — just hopeful — and it broke my heart.
Part of this is a classic second-kid problem. First kids arrive before their siblings, stake out their territory, and enjoy lots of one-on-one time with their parents to develop an easy rapport. Second kids show up late to the party and are always jostling for room at the trough. They never know what it’s like not to have to co-exist with another sibling — one who has been there longer and is more experienced in conversation.
In some ways, this reminds me of my own childhood. Like James, I had an older sister, and when I was James’ age I felt my sister had a closer bond to my father than I did. A few years later, though, the tables turned as my sister entered those often inscrutable tween and teen years, and my father and I bonded over a mutual love of baseball. I remember my father trying to find ways to engage my sister in those years (most disastrously when he announced he’d signed the two of them up for a sailing class and she eyed him in disbelief and said, “Sailing?! Like, in the water?”) Eventually, they found new ways to bond, but as parents who have been through it know, finding ways to truly connect with all of your kids is an ever-changing challenge — especially when your time is spread so thin as it is, and you’re always tired.
After thinking about James’ question for a second, I kissed him goodnight and said, “Of course, buddy. We can definitely talk together the way Annie and I do. I promise.” He smiled, bundled in his covers, and quickly fell to sleep.
Since then I’ve started to take James with me on errands. As we pick up milk and cereal at the store, for example, he gets plenty of time to talk to me, uninterrupted, about anything he wants. This usually means talking about “scary stuff” like werewolves, sharks, and lately, the Titanic. How he heard about the Titanic, I don’t know. Kids are weird, man. I’ve also been more conscious of whether he’s being included in conversations with his sister. Above all, though, I’ve learned that it’s important not just to be present in your kids' lives, but to be aware of how you’re being present for all of your kids. Until James asked me his question, I didn’t realize he longed to interact with me in a way we weren’t. I can’t tell you how glad I am he asked.