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When Sibling Love Doesn't Look the Way You Thought It Would

Photograph by Twenty20

As I held baby Natalie, her four-year-old brother Tommy ran up. Unprompted, he cupped her head in his hands and kissed her. It was pretty damn sweet. And foreign. My four-year-old doesn’t kiss or hug his baby brother.

I’m not that surprised. My older kid is not a terribly physically demonstrative child, never has been. If I ask him to, he will come sit on my lap or give me a kiss, but he rarely initiates. I wasn’t sure if it was just him or just me until I had his baby brother—now I know what it’s like to have a baby cuddle into your side for comfort. Spoiler alert: it’s really sweet.

My older kid has been his own guy from the get-go, a busy man without too much time to snuggle, and as a restless person myself, I get it. I find it easier to putter around, to multitask, than to just sit and do one thing, so perhaps he has my nervous energy.

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On top of this, when his baby brother was born, I didn’t push the hugging or kissing too much on the big kid. I tried to be pretty sensitive when our only child suddenly had to start sharing attention, and to me it would seem more resentment-inducing than bond-facilitating to say things like “Kiss the baby!” “Hug your brother!” I asked the older one if he wanted to help hold or feed the baby, and sometimes he said yes and sometimes he said no, and if he said no, I didn’t ask again or try to convince him otherwise.

But what I love more is that while the older brother doesn’t necessarily express lots of love with hugs, he is good with words and deeds.

While the kissing and hugging would be heart-melting (another friend was just in town and her little boy called his baby sister “Sweet girl,”) I do believe the brothers get a kick out of each other. The baby worships his big brother, and when he's in the mood for it, big bro eats it up. He’s always been an attention-seeking guy but when he realizes that his baby brother is a great audience, the two of them start being silly together and laughing. It’s adorable, and it’s the version of hugging and kissing that I get—even if they're both basically blowing raspberries at each other and laughing.

Occasionally, the older boy will pat the baby on the head. He’ll also get protective when other people horn in on him. “That’s my baby!” I’ve heard him tell other kids. But what I love more is that while the older brother doesn’t necessarily express lots of love with hugs, he is good with words and deeds.

Sometimes, unprompted, the big boy will hand his little brother a toy, or give him some milk or give him a high five. When the baby’s scared of a toy roaring dinosaur, the preschooler's lower lip trembles too. The other day in the stroller I heard him explaining to his little brother where his school was, and today he told me that he’s looking forward to his little brother getting bigger so they can play together.

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I definitely hope these two boys grow up to like each other, but I don’t want to force it and make it feel like it’s an obligation to hold your sibling's hand or to not get mad when the baby grabs at a book he’s reading. That way, when the big brother does deign to pat his baby on the head, I can tell myself it’s a true, spontaneous form of affection. And then I hug both of them. For as long as they'll let me.

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