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Why My Oldest Child Is Already More Courageous Than I’ll Ever Be

"As a kid, I had four older siblings to guide me. Sam is on his own."

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The following story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

I’m the fifth of five kids, and over the years I’ve often reflected on the role birth order might have played in shaping my family. As a father of two boys, I’m now even more keenly aware of the dynamic. When I’m out in public with my oldest son, who is now 4-years-old, strangers constantly remark on how much he looks like me. I smile politely and think, if you spent any time around us, you’d see we are carbon copies in temperament too. We’re both not morning people. Neither of us cares much for our family cat. More significantly though, we’re both very emotional, empathetic, and sensitive. As an adult, I know the virtues of those traits. Yet for a child, they can present real challenges. And that’s where there is one giant chasm between my older son and me: As a kid, I had four older siblings to guide me. Sam is on his own.

Growing up, I was sensitive and could easily have my feelings crushed. But I also remember having little, if any, apprehension surrounding many childhood rites of passage. It didn’t occur to me to be nervous about learning how to ride a bike or to swim. I just wanted to keep up with my brother Mike. On my first day of school, I walked in like I owned the place. Every teacher in the building knew me. “Another Smith kid? Here are your ruler and glue stick.” When I was 12-years-old and a kid threatened to have his older cousin beat me up, my brother Dan picked me up from school and laid down the law. Dan told the bully to inform his cousin that if he touched me, he’d have to deal with him ⏤ he was the starting fullback on the high-school football team.

Considering that all three of my three older brothers played football ⏤ one was an offensive lineman, and the other two were fullbacks ⏤ I literally had three lead blockers, and one tough sister, who opened up holes for me to run through my whole life. Today, watching my sweet and sensitive older son navigate a world far more complex than the one I confronted in the late 70s, and with no examples in front of him as a guide, I marvel at the bravery he shows on a daily basis. My first day of school came at half-day kindergarten when I was 5-years-old. Sam was two weeks past his first birthday when he marched into daycare for the first time. Shortly before he turned two, we uprooted him from his little friends and teachers, his routine, and the only home he’d ever known, in order to make a cross-country move.

I realize now that a firstborn like Sam mostly has adults as his examples, and I can imagine how difficult it must be for him to see us effortlessly eating with forks, dressing, or stacking Legos. When he’s trying new things, and at four, almost everything he does is new, he can become easily frustrated, and emotionally fraught when it doesn’t go the way he hopes or expects. “I’m missing all the time!” he said when he first tried basketball. As adults, we’re tempted to laugh at such moments because we know better. But for him, when we watch basketball on TV, the ball goes in virtually every time.

The worldview of Sam’s little brother Luke is totally different, because his example is, well, Sam. He knows it’s tough for small kids to put on their own shoes or make baskets. Life’s little injustices roll off his tiny shoulders. And when he does get frustrated, his sensitive big brother is quick to tell him it’s all going to be okay.

For Sam, there are many more firsts in front of him. The path ahead will be scary and overwhelming at times. It tends to be when you’re bushwhacking with the machete and the rest of the expedition walks safely behind you. His hopes and expectations will be dashed, and it breaks my own heart knowing I won’t be able to reassure him by saying, “I know how it feels.” I don’t. As similar as we are, I can’t be there for him in that way. I will tell him the truth though, that he’s already shown more courage in his short life than I have in mine.

Sean Smith is a father of two boys and lives in Berkeley, California. He runs the Reputation practice at Porter Novelli.