We parents of three children hear the same comments time and again. The third child gets the shaft. Oh, he’s your third? Yeah, mine is like that, too. They’re always yelling about something.
There’s good reason for any third or subsequent child’s proclivity toward protest – ours, at four years old, is always getting dragged around someplace he would rather not be. I'm certain there is a part of him that feels slighted because he often doesn’t get to simply act his age. My other children are older than him by four and six years, so the family frequently operates at their level, not his. Sometimes, my third child even regresses a little, if only to prove to the rest of us that he’s not quite ready to climb that mountain or carry the pack we’ve just strapped onto his back.
If I could draw, I would sketch a comic, complete with speech bubbles, to illustrate how infrequently I focus solely on the needs of my third child:
What he’s thinking:
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
What I’m thinking:
Tough rocks, kid – I’m nearly done with this gig.
This past summer, I kept my three children together for most of the time – Mom Camp, I called it – but in early August when my family congregated in the northeast near my parents, I sent my older two kids, along with a few of their cousins, to sleep-away camp for two weeks.
After the big kids were stashed safely away, sweating in their bunks, I was left holding hands with my toe-headed number three; my spunky caboose, forlorn without his engine. He pouted, bouncing his Crocs off the gnarled hemlock roots in front of my parents’ house.
“What can we do now, Mom?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure. It was just us chickens and a near-empty schedule for two whole weeks. We felt my other children’s absence right away, but a small part of me basked in sudden relief: I had fewer children for a time, sure, but more importantly, I no longer had to slough my third child’s desires into the compost pile, salvaging only the will of the larger, older group.
We grabbed a yellow pail and walked around the twisted path away from my parents’ house, collecting pinecones, mushrooms, and pods of chartreuse moss. We lingered, ambling along at a four-year-old’s pace, which (I’d almost forgotten) is at once lovely and tedious. After a short time, he’d had enough and asked if we could turn around. When I agreed, his step quickened, his heart content.
Then we made a visit to the local farm. With no competing siblings to snatch the shopping basket away, he grasped it with two hands, steadying it in front with his belly.
“I’m going to pick out dinner,” he announced.
He closed his palm over a plump, bluish heirloom tomato. He plucked an ear of corn from a pile of silks. He chose a hunk of farm cheese, a cluster of beets, and a bunch of carrots. His shopping basket was filled like my favorite page from "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," only there were no holes.
“I like salad,” he said as we passed by the lettuce cooler. Never mind that I didn’t believe him – this, for a picky four-year-old child, was progress. For once, he was leading the way.
Later, when we had fed ourselves, the evening dimmed. I asked him if he’d like to help me feed the dog, a chore his older siblings normally complete. He scooped kibble into the dog bowl and then continued to offer the dog handfuls of biscuits. I did not intervene. We took a shower and snuggled up against each other in my bed, with warm, damp skin, and we read books.
The next day, he marched around the kitchen barefoot, putting together his breakfast. He found an old stepladder in the broom closet and climbed onto the counter to select a bowl. After he’d slurped up his cereal, I allowed him to dig in to the leftover berry pie – a reward, I figured, for his latest, big-boy behavior.
At last, he had space to show me – and himself – how much he could do on his own, without accepting his default assignment of the very smallest spot. Our two weeks together had sprung this unexpected offshoot, a tendril of joy.
It’s true that kids in larger families learn and grow in spite of the fact that the dealer sometimes has to skip them – everyone agrees there are only so many cards in the deck. I’ll admit that I sometimes lean too heavily on this fact, perhaps out of laziness or because I get so easily overwhelmed by the underbelly of summer’s freedom.
When I first thought about spending two weeks alone with my four-year-old, I imagined an awful lot of whining, with my only respite from our combined unmet needs being the unholy iPad or lollipop bribes.
It’s easy for any of us to become jaded by our own parenting routine. But resetting the combination of who does what with whom (and when) unlocks a side of each of us that is worth the effort; no matter how subtle a change we make, progress ensues.