Ninja Boy is the overlooked member of our family.
He is the middle child, sandwiched between a super-achiever older brother and an unstoppable ham of a younger brother (and, in his own words, a second younger brother of “another species–a ghost”). He is the extrovert in a family of introverts, the one who threw temper tantrums on Halloween not because he wanted more candy from each house, but because he wanted to stop and engage with each candy-giver instead of saying thank you and moving on to the next one. He fights to establish himself as an individual, developing his own interests, habits, and goals–swords and knights, playing Legos while listening to stories instead of reading them, and getting expelled from school so he can focus full-time on his art.
For a long time I couldn’t get a clear handle on what made Ninja Boy tick. His older brother once famously said, “All you care about is swords and girls,” to which my then-four-year-old replied, “Ya, that’s right.” But it wasn’t right. NinjaBoy was obsessed with swords, yes, and he loved girls, true–but even then I sensed that his heart was much bigger, and that there was something we were missing in our assessment of him.
When he started kindergarten and discovered the joy of having a teacher who genuinely loved him, he told us that two years before, his preschool teacher had refused to help when other kids in his class bullied him. “Don’t be a tattle tale,” was her response to his reports of being kicked and punched.
We were furious and guilt-stricken in equal measure: how could we have missed this? But the timing lined up exactly with FearlessToddler’s birth and the nine-month nightmare of his diagnosis and surgery. Of course we had missed it. Suddenly the past two years’ worth of drawings–of stick people who, though incredibly expressive, never looked happy–made sense.
We put him into play therapy. Ever the extrovert, he accepted his therapist as a new “grown-up friend” and talked about how much fun they had together. And his stick people started smiling.
He grew kind, more self-controlled. I suddenly understood that the two years of wild physical acting out in every situation was his way of protecting himself, of showing every person he encountered that he could be bigger and badder than they were so they would leave him alone. His therapist agreed with this assessment: “I think his interest in swords is really about feeling safe.” So we focused on self-protection skills. NinjaBoy took aikido; he learned to say “no!” in a big, strong voice; he learned to stay near a teacher when a mean kid wouldn’t leave him alone on the playground. Eventually, he learned that everyone loves the class clown, and so he started getting in trouble not for being wild, but for being funny.
One day he brought home a picture he’d done of our family. There was BirthLifeHusband and me, big and wearing our favorite colors; there was his big brother, wearing HIS favorite color; there was his living little brother, dancing and singing; there was a sweet wisp of a baby floating in the air; and there was a joyous head hanging upside down from the top edge of the picture: NinjaBoy himself, happy and silly, defying expectations.
The next day was a double whopper: FearlessToddler’s third birthday AND DoulaBoy’s first public performance in the school musical. Vaguely, it occurred to me that NinjaBoy could have some big feelings about being overshadowed by his brothers, but that was soon swept away in the sheer overwhelming excitement of it all. We went out for a special dinner before the performance and while we waited for BLH to arrive, I played a game with the boys: if you could make up a special world, what would be the most important feature? DoulaBoy’s was money: everyone would be rich, and the money would be really cool and beautiful. FearlessToddler’s was music: The Wiggles figured largely in his world.
When it was NinjaBoy’s turn, he looked at me with his big hazel eyes (surrounded by eyelashes that every woman I know would kill for) and said, “Our family is the most important thing in my world.”
And suddenly everything made sense. This was what made my middle son tick. Yes, he is often overlooked; yes, he wants to distinguish himself from his brothers. But he is also in his element at home with us; he looks to us for his sense of identity and belonging; he knows we accept him and love him just as he is. We are the most important thing in his world.
That night, after DoulaBoy’s musical ended, after all the applause and the flowers and the returning of the costumes, NinjaBoy had finally had enough. In the hallway outside the auditorium, he started to sob and wail. As BLH held him, I stroked his back and said, “Now it’s time to celebrate YOU. It hasn’t been easy to have one brother with a birthday on the same day your other brother gets fussed over for being in a show. But you have been an AWESOME brother today, you haven’t complained or been jealous, you’ve been kind and helpful all day long, and now we’re going out for ice cream to celebrate YOU.”
I wasn’t sure it would sink in, but it did. I looked into his eyes as the tears disappeared with the realization that he was being recognized for what mattered most to him.
And that is how NinjaBoy changed his name to FamilyBoy.