My 4-year-old daughter idolizes her older brother. Only two and a half years apart, she is always striving to be a part of everything that he is interested in so she can be included, too. It rarely seems to matter what the activity is as long as she is with him.
From an early age, she was trying to play trains with him, which was sometimes seen as her stealing the trains he was playing with. When she was able to build train tracks, he started telling her what to build and she did so willingly because she was finally able to participate. She has gone on subway trips with him, studied the subway map, and learned many of the stops and lines. She has fully embraced what can only be called her brother’s subway addiction.
As he has gotten older, his interests have diversified. In addition to reading and math, which has been a little harder for her to follow quickly, he became interested in space as a result of a show that they watched. As he immersed himself in learning about planets, meteors, moons, and the solar system, my daughter tried to keep up. She went on the planetarium trips, learned the names of the planets and dwarf planets, and started collecting rocks to make a solar system for him. On her own birthday cake, she requested that there be a picture of Mars because her brother had pointed out that it was the fourth planet and she was turning 4.
While it was wonderful to see how attached she was to her brother and supportive of him, we knew that she had other interests that she wasn’t demonstrating around him. All fall, she played a variety of pretend games with her friends at school, including “family” where she was always the mother. For Hanukkah, she received baby dolls, accessories, and a dollhouse to help encourage this creativity at home. It lasted a couple days, but then she realized that her brother didn’t want to play, so she stopped.
We became frustrated as we realized how much his interests were dominating her world and not allowing her to have her own voice. But then she started to have some breakthroughs. Bizarrely, the first one was when she saw “Frozen.” She became obsessed with it and stuck with it, despite the fact that he didn’t want to sit down and watch the whole movie with her. Things started turning around when he started complaining that she was always talking about “Frozen,” and we pointed out that he always talks about subways. He very slowly came into her world and started to learn the songs that she listened to. When he tried to take over and speak authoritatively about it, she let him because she was still getting his attention. And she had her friends at school that she played “Frozen” with, anyway.
Her next breakthrough was a more deliberate one on my part. While her brother was at a birthday party, I engaged her in a full afternoon of pretend play, very eager to demonstrate that it was OK to pretend at home. By the end of the day, Queen Esther and Queen Vashti (who had been promoted after we killed off a few people) had developed their own castles. Mine had a grocery store where she bought groceries for our picnics. Hers had the babies who needed to be taken for check-ups at the doctor. Our pretend play continued straight through dinner when we planned for her to sleep over at my castle in the Royal Tower Room. It was amazing to watch her creativity explode like this.
And then her brother came home.
Immediately, he poked holes in the pretend play, getting upset about it, declaring that there was no Royal Tower Room and that it was just my daughter’s room. My husband and I reminded him that anything was possible in pretend, and that this wasn’t his game; he could join it but not destroy it.
I was relieved to see that our daughter was undeterred. She stuck to our storyline throughout the next few weeks, even adding accents at one point. But, while I immensely enjoyed watching her, I also wondered why it had bothered my son so much. I knew his brain was wired for more reality-based things, but he had dabbled in pretend from time to time. Then I realized that it was because he was not in charge, and his sister was. I had a strange satisfaction and relief in knowing that she had finally asserted her own voice above her brother’s and was comfortable; she didn’t need his participation.
While she still follows him, she has started putting in her own requests for shows to watch and doesn’t always want to participate in his activities. When she wanted to draw instead of watching TV with him one day, he was so completely perturbed that he refused to watch TV at all. We’ve tried to explain to him that she doesn’t always have to do the activity he wants, and I’m sure in time, he’ll get used to his sister’s growing independence. She is finally happy to be in the same space with him while she creates elaborate pretend stories, even if he is doing something else. She has finally found her own voice.