Sunday, September 19, 2010

Monkey in the Middle

Being married to the middle son of three boys, I am a firm believer in a little thing called "Middle Child Syndrome." I have enjoyed teasing my husband about it over the years ("Oh you're such a middle child!") but in all reality, he is and it does exist.

A middle child is never the first and never the last. They aren't the first in the family to learn to tie their shoes, to ride a bike, to go to big-kid school. They also aren't the baby, the family's last chance to experience the baby stage, the last one learn to walk, to get on that school bus, to reap the benefits of the older siblings paving the way for them. They are forever in-between. They get the hand-me-down bikes and then pass that along to another sibling when the time comes; they don't get the same praise as the oldest child for countless milestones, as by now those things are merely expected, and they forever live in the shadow of their often more successful older sibling. The most important thing to remember about any middle child is this: you can never give them enough attention. At least, not in their mind.

So knowing all this, we were hesitant to bring another child into our family, thus making Owen - our already very needy, clingy and sensitive little boy - the middle man. In fact, this is a large reason why there are four years between he and Rhian. After many years of debate, we ultimately decided that as long as we were aware of the possible affects a younger sibling would have on him, we could deal with it. Basically, we felt the pros of having another sibling far out-weighed the cons of him being the middle child. I want to report that it has never been as issue, but that would be a lie. I do believe that him being the only boy among the three helps immensely; it is so much easier to single him out and to think of "Owen-only" activities to do with him. We have tried our best to give him the attention we know he craves, without taking anything away from his sisters, and to fulfill the lonely, 'left behind' feeling common to middle children. At the end of the day however, I must admit that it is impossible not to over look the middle child at least some of the time. I clearly remember Morgan at age 5, climbing the steps to that bus on her first day of Primary, me crying and her never looking back. I also very clearly remember my tiny 4 year old Rhian, my baby, running to the bus on her first day and me being lost and deeply saddened by my empty house. But with Owen....well God love him but I don't remember that day as clearly. He was ready, he was happy, and he wasn't the first. Or the last. See how that works?

So fast forward a few years and we find ourselves moving to a brand new province. Owen, like many middle children, is fairly even tempered and laid back. He wasn't as concerned to leave his friends as his older sister, nor was he as excited as his younger one. He just took it all as it came at him. Everything was going better than expected until the day they started school. It became immediately apparent that the school system here in Ontario is far more advanced than that of Nova Scotia (which is another rant for another day) and that poor Owen was going to be in the most trouble. As far as school work goes, Owen is not a good student. That is not to say he isn't smart, in fact the kid reads far above grade level and can do more with electronics and wires than most adults, but he just doesn't care enough. He doesn't try, he doesn't apply himself and he has always gotten away with just scraping by. Until now.

I have been thinking about this a lot and have come to the conclusion that what we at first perceived as a problem in the education of our eastern schools, is probably more a problem that started right here at home. Morgan is our brilliant student. That reeks of favoritism, spelled out in bold print like that, but it has always been a known fact in our house. She, like most first children, is a self-starter, an independent worker and has always found every grade she's been in far below her capability. She does not struggle with any area of school and has made this major move - at least in the education department - seamlessly. We knew early on that Owen had to be pushed, that he just couldn't seem to focus and didn't take his assignments seriously. So we accepted that. Over the years we allowed him (not without a struggle) to do the minimum and to get away with as little output as possible, always explaining it away as him not caring and his teacher not being firm enough with him. The day he came home from grade 4 here and we realized he was WAY behind in almost every subject, I seriously regretted moving at all. They were "reviewing" their multiplication tables, while Owen had no idea what they were. They had a "reminder quiz" on the capitals of all the provinces of Canada, poor Owen didn't even know a quarter of the provinces themselves. To top it off, the kids here have had core french every day since Pre K, while Owen didn't even know how to say hello in that language.

So we did the only thing we knew how to do: we printed out a chart of the times tables and had him spend an hour each day studying them. Steven created a dice game with him to make the quizzing fun and I showed him the tricks I always used to remember the names and locations of the provinces and their capitals. We both began speaking french to him and printing off lists of vocabulary words to ask him each day. And then a crazy thing happened: he learned. In a move no one expected, Owen rose to the occasion and began memorizing and understanding faster than we ever imagined he could. There were some bumps in the road, yes of course, and some tears, but the progress is remarkable. I realized the root issue when I asked him one day during his homework why he was crying. The answer wasn't "its too hard" or "I don't understand this", but instead, "this isn't fair." He truly believed that it was not fair that we expected him to work and I instantly knew how we had failed him: we had over looked the needs of our middle child. Again. We said we wouldn't, we knew he needed that extra push to get motivated, but it happened anyway.

So what started out two weeks ago as a potentially stressful catch-up year for our son with hours and hours of homework every night, has quickly become a blessing in disguise. I feel like only now are we really seeing Owen's potential and appreciating just how intelligent he is. I feel like we have been trying so hard to not overlook Owen physically all these years, that we have over looked the details and have missed so much. I am very grateful that we are seeing this whole new side of our precious son, he has perked up so much in the past few weeks and I must say I will never tire of that look of pride he gets on his beautiful face when he realizes he has understood and remembered something new.

As for Owen, he is loving this. Not only is this opening up a whole new world for him, but this is the answer to his personal prayers. You guessed it: he has Mommy and Daddy all to himself for an hour of homework every night.

And let me tell you, it has quickly become my favorite hour of the day.


SwedishJenn said...

Michelle...This is my most favourite post from you. It reeks of "great parent" and captures the essence of your struggle with your middle child and middle-child syndrome. Those first few weeks must have been maddening for everyone but you recognized the root of the problem and what a blessing in the end. I really love your writing style, you take us through your experiences with such honesty and feeling. Thank you for starting my day off with a tear and a smile. xo

Michelle said...

Thanks so much Jenn, its the culmination of many thoughts that have been knocking around my head for the last two weeks. This parenting thing sure has its ups and downs but it is always so great and rewarding when we can turn a negative into a positive.

I am glad you are enjoying my blog. I am still toying with the idea of opening it up but every time I go to do just that I chicken out....perhaps one day :)

Mandi said...

I love reading your posts. You are able to put into words what I can only put together in my head. When it comes to "spitting it out" I just can't seem to get it right, so I stick with lots of pictures :) I love hearing about the kids and your daily journeys. You and Steve are amazing parents and should be very proud of all that you have accomplished.