“I don’t want to go to a beach with rockpools,” whines my daughter. “It’s not fair, we always go to the places he wants.”
Good grief. This beach trip is only notional, something I’ve made the mistake of mentioning we could do next weekend if the weather is nice, and already it’s a battleground.
“Okay,” I offer, ever in search of a quiet life, “we’ll go to a beach that doesn’t have rockpools. How’s that?”
Before the words leave my lips, I realise my error. Sure enough, our five-year-old son explodes.
“NO! I want to go to the ANEMONE BEACH”.
Sibling rivalry has been a mainstay of human drama forever. From The Iliad to King Lear and The Kardashians (a lineage that doesn’t reflect well on our cultural progress, but let’s not dwell on that, just now), the seething antipathy between brothers and sisters has driven plots through the millennia.
Now we have one of our very own in the home, which is being spiced up by our son’s recent diagnosis with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
It must seem to her that, since we’ve learned about his condition, his mum and I have given him a kind of license to 'lose his shit' that she can only dream about.
Don’t get me wrong – most of the time these kids get along fine. They play together, look out for one another, hell, they’ll even own up to loving each other if there’s, say, an ice cream in it for them. But at least once a day mutual resentment and jealousies will spill over into scenes of violent degradation.
Our daughter is seven and getting hip to her little brother’s “special treatment”. It must seem to her that, since we’ve learned about his condition, his mum and I have given him a kind of license to 'lose his shit' that she can only dream about.
Once or twice I’ve tried to explain to her that her brother “finds it difficult to control himself” and that we need to help him, not punish him all the time.
She smiles and nods, but the next time she’s caught red-handed in some transgression, she’s quick to claim that she couldn’t control herself, which makes it okay, right? Smart kid.
Never a picnic, parenting in the wake of the ASD curveball is shaping up like a minefield.
Apart from the meltdowns, our son’s autism presents most clearly in his unwavering focus on a slender field of interest, which includes anemones (hence the rockpool squabble) and, with escalating ardour, fire hydrants.
Our daughter looks on, perplexed, as we cater to his passions, drive out of our way to see an especially amusing hydrant and even bid on eBay for actual hydrant components to complement his growing collection. Meanwhile, she’s not allowed to play with Barbie-dolls. No wonder life seems unfair.
Come February, he’ll be joining her at the primary school across the road. A whole smorgasbord of new challenges awaits our son, and daughter. At age seven, she already displays a teenager’s appetite for kudos, so having a brother on the scene who finds it neither easy nor worth his while to make friends, and a local rep as “that fire hydrant kid” is likely to test her loyalty.
When the playground teasing starts, I know she’ll stick up for him, but we need to make sure her heroism does not go unsung.
The game can seem rigged when you’re an older sibling. I know. I am one.
Come February, he’ll be joining her at the primary school across the road. A whole smorgasbord of new challenges awaits our son, and daughter.
When my sister and I quarreled, she’d run wailing to mum with some ludicrous claim that I’d hit her (not the way she remembers it – go figure), and I’d always be the one punished, who should have known better, who needed to take responsibility.
Yes, it can be a bum deal, seniority.
So it is with the eyes of one who knows that now I meet her gaze, eyes that understand the sacrifice she makes and recognise her nobility.
“Rockpools are pretty cool, right?” I venture.
“Besides anemones, you’ve got your starfish, we could pick up some shells to decorate your fairy garden...”
For a moment her face softens and she seems ready to relent. Then a shadow crosses her features, and leaves a surly grimace.
“It’s not fair,” she observes, then heads into her room and slams the door.
Oh well. Maybe it will rain.