My Tween Is Outgrowing Playing With Her Little Brother, And It's Breaking My Heart

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
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It’s a sight that’s become too familiar in the last few months: my nine-year-old son sitting outside my daughter’s—his sister’s—room playing a game on his iPad. When I ask him what he’s doing, the answer is the same. He’s waiting. He’s waiting for his sister to finish FaceTiming with her friends because then she promised she’d play with him.

I offer to let him come hang out with me while I get some work done, rather than sit alone on the floor, but he shrugs. He’s fine there…waiting to play with his sister who is almost 11.

I knew this day would come, that one day she’d be too old to build LEGO worlds with her little brother and create extravagant scenarios with superheroes and Barbies. I knew one day her friends and the privacy of her room would have a draw that the tiny playroom full of colorful toys would not. And I knew my son would be left behind, still in the world of Legos and superhero figurines for a few more years while she slid into adolescence.

But I didn’t know how much it would break my heart to see him lose his playmate, or how desperate I’d feel to hold onto those moments during which she did choose to play.

My children are close—in age and emotional connection. Often, they have been each other’s stable presence in an ever-changing world. They’ve been through trauma together that most kids will never know—first their father’s cancer diagnosis, then his death, and now their mother’s rocky attempt to solo parent during a pandemic.

But now she’s drifting into a world that he’s not allowed into, and I can tell he’s lost without her, not sure how to play on his own, maybe not even sure he wants to play on his own.

So he negotiates. He tells her that if he leaves her alone for ten minutes, she’ll come play with him after. If he watches the show she wants to watch, then next time they’ll return to that game of pretend they started weeks ago. I see him, even, striving to enjoy the things she’s gravitating toward—the video games and shows that her friends are playing—in an effort to hold onto that time with her.

He’ll never admit it, of course. If you ask him, his big sister is annoying, and he doesn’t care what she’s doing. And, to be clear, their sibling relationship isn’t all sparkle, glitter, and quiet play time. They fight. A lot. Sometimes it feels like they fight all day long. He drives her bonkers and she knows exactly how to push all his buttons. But despite that, unfailingly, he’s sitting outside her door, waiting for her, negotiating for more of her time.

Sometimes, he’ll even come to me and recruit my help in getting her out of her room. And though I know it’s completely age-appropriate for her to want to text her friends and play online games with them, I can’t help but support his case. I rationalize it, by telling myself pretend play is still good for her brain development and that too much screen time isn’t. But ultimately, like him, I want to hold onto time with her. I’m not ready to give up hearing them giggling and planning and creating wild games from their imagination. I want to savor every little bit of “little kid” that she has left in her for a little longer—for as long as I can.

She doesn’t complain much. She’ll usually agree to play with her little brother—humoring him because she has a kind heart and humoring me because she knows when he’s busy with her, I can tackle some of the things on my endless single mom to-do list. Which means even though she’s still playing with him, she’s doing so less as a little kid, and more as a mother’s helper.

And something in that—that she’s playing with him to help me—speaks to a maturity that’s so much more obvious than simply wanting to hide away in her room to text and FaceTime with friends. We can coax her out of her room with negotiations and requests to “go play” because too much screen time isn’t good, but the truth is, she’s growing up even when she agrees to play. And my son and I have to let her, even though we’ll miss the “little kid” version of her. Because, also, the truth is, the “big kid” version of her is pretty amazing too.

As far as sibling relationships go, I know with a mother’s intuition that there’s will be the kind of relationship that lasts a lifetime. But right now it’s shifting and there’s nothing I can do but watch him wait outside his sister’s door for the moment she opens it up to him and he gets his playmate back, even for just a few hours. And also, engage in my own waiting, for the day when they’re both hidden away behind closed doors, building worlds and lives that don’t need me as much, and it’ll be a different kind of heart break, a different kind of new normal that’s inevitable, but no less full of missing days long gone.

It’s the natural order of things. And while I’ll always miss the “little kid” versions of them, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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