Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sibling therapy

A couple of years ago, I got assailed by some posters in the comments section of a newspaper's parenting blog for discussing our decision to have another child in the wake of Archer's diagnosis with autism. I mentioned that we felt that interaction with a brother or sister would be good for Archer's development, and in a parenthetical aside, revealed that some professionals we had talked to termed that strategy "sibling therapy."

Those who responded negatively felt that we were setting our second child not to be her own person, but to be a support system for her brother. They thought it was as unfair to have a second child for any reason other than to nurture her life for its own sake, as unethical in its way as having another child with the thought of providing a source of organs or bone marrow for an older sibling with a life-threatening illness.

I certainly see their point, but such an interpretation of our decision is bound to be an impoverished one. Anyone who has a sick or disabled child has to evaluate the choice to have more children in light of their impact on the disadvantaged one. Suggesting that part of the decision is whether this will be good or bad for the existing child is just realistic, not cold and calculating.

But I often have occasion to revisit that decision with joy. There's no doubt that Cady Gray has been immensely good for Archer (as well as a delight in and of herself). Here's a signal example.

This afternoon I arrived home from church a little bit after the rest of my family, having stayed behind to count the offering as part of my vestry duties. I picked up fast food on the way home, and when I got there, I sat at the table and ate it while the kids, who had finished their lunch before I arrived, played in the living room.

As I was eating, Cady Gray came up to me with a rubber ball and asked if I could roll it with her in the hall. She had already asked Archer and Dad, who both told her they were busy. I said that I was still eating my lunch, but I'd be happy to play with her after her naptime.

Her little face crumpled, and she began to wail. I felt bad that she'd been turned down by everyone, and tried to make a deal with her to play later, but she refused to be consoled, shaking her head despondently at each new suggestion.

Suddenly I realized that Archer had come up behind her. In a sympathetic, cheerful voice, he said, "I'll play ball with you, Cady Gray."

She immediately swallowed her sobs, and wiping away tears, followed him to the hall, where he directed her with enthusiasm. Noel and I made sure to praise him extravagantly, both immediately and afterwards, for being so nice to his little sister. But there's something special for us in that moment.

It's not that he hasn't been compassionate to her before. In fact, if anything, he overreacts to her being upset -- he tries to hug her and comfort her even if she's too mad to be touched. He wants to fix it and get past it -- nothing's more disturbing to him than a disrupted environment, so he tries to do what we're doing to stop the disturbance and get back to normalcy.

It's that he knew why she was upset, and initiated a social interaction that responded to that fact. I couldn't have been more astounded if he had suddenly begun talking with her about ballerinas. He was engaged with her perspective, and he acted out of that understanding rather than out of his own narrowly obsessive world.

Cady Gray is her own person, and Lord knows I love her for her own adorable self. But seeing what Archer's been able to do with the opportunity to constantly practice social skills with a child who is not far removed from his developmental level in many areas (and is ahead in several), I know that we made the right decision when we decided to have another child. Not only for her, but for him.


Timothy said...

I love reading about your children. Please answer me this: Did Santa bring Cady Gray a tutu for Christmas?

the secret knitter said...


It was sweet to see how well Archer and Cady Gray got along when I was there. Or maybe they just put on a good show for visitors? :)

Anonymous said...

Of course, the real point of this story is that I'm a terrible father for refusing to play ball with my kid. Cat's in the cradle, man.

(In my defense, there were still some chips on my plate, and it was five minutes before naptime.)


Eric Grubbs said...

What a heartfelt post Donna. Not to imply you don't normally write from the heart, but this was really moving. Thanks for sharing.

Doc Thelma said...

It's interesting... if Archer was not austistic and you had just listing one of your reasons for having a second as "we didn't want him to be an only child" I doubt anyone would question your ethics. But as soon as you can point to a specific reason why having a sibling would be good for the first-born (chance for improved social skills for an autistic child, chance for life-saving umbilical stem cell therapy for a cancer patient), you find your ethics questioned. As if the "specific" reason precludes your loving and treasuring the second child for his/her own sake, but all the general reasons don't.

Good for Archer! I'm always thrilled to hear about his progress.

Anonymous said...

It's worth noting what Archer has done for Cady Gray as well. His interest in reading and math has encouraged her in those areas, and his preference for order means that she's generally well-behaved, just from following his lead.

When the time comes, and she begins to understand the ways that Archer is different, we'll make it clear to her that she was not brought into this world to be responsible for him. But they get along so well now that I'm hoping she'll eventually come to appreciate what a unique experience she's had (and having).

Maureen said...

I agree with doc thelma. Every decision to have a second (or third, or whatever number) child has implications specifically on the first child. I wanted a second child to accompany my first child through life, and hopefully adulthood; to navigate the waters of their parents' old age with support from each other; to provide a playmate, friend, and companion to teach compassion, patience, sharing and love. I also considered that children with siblings have statistically lower IQs, that they would likely not be able to attend private schools, or have other pricey academic benefits, due to the financial constraints of additional children. The fact that anyone would criticize you for considering the positive impact a sibling could have on Archer just proves that too many people need to find fault wherever they look. Shame on them. You and Noel are awesome parents.

Anonymous said...

You have beautiful children. I think they'll be good for each other.
If I may make a comment on having more than one child to (save? prevent? protect?) one's first offspring from being an "only child." I want to go on record as being very much in favor of only children. I'm one and so is my son. We're both like people but we're also very comfortable with being by ourselves. Neither are we selfish, spoiled or odd, as only children are sometimes labeled. My husband has two siblings, one of whom refuses to talk to him (long story) and the other whom he rarely sees. His childhood was a nightmare of jealousy and com petition. Mine was placid and I felt very loved. It seems prejudice against only children is one of the few prejudices left that people feel very safe in expressing openly. My husband and I have the resources to send our son the the best schools and to take him with us when we travel throughout the world. Being an only child has given him many opportunities he wouldn't have experienced if we had to count pennies because we had more children to provide for.