I often tell people that I'm the mother of a modern-day Ernie and Bert. My two boys -- nine-year-old James and 12-year-old Benj-- remind me so much of that legendary Sesame Street duo! My exuberant, irrepressible, mischievous Jamesie is so much like Ernie, and my meticulous, cautious, good egg Benj so reminiscent of Bert. Like Ernie and Bert, James and Benj are polar opposites who get on each other's nerves but who are nonetheless the best of friends. They've challenged each other, taught each other, and been each other's fiercest advocates. Having two children with such diametrically opposed needs, tastes, and temperaments has been both an enormous challenge and an enormous source of growth and joy.
So many parents describe the disconcerting discovery that your second baby is nothing like your first! Benj slept through the night at six weeks; James was up three times a night until he was three. Benj walked late and unsteadily and is a circumspect and careful boy; James strode around confidently at a year old and is a risk-taker who plunges headlong into experience. For Benj as for Bert, things need to go in a certain place in a certain way; like Ernie, James is disorganized and devil-may-care. Like Bert, Benj treasures his peace and quiet and his alone time; like Ernie, James is loud and obstreperous and always wants to be interacting with others. Like Bert with his bottle cap and paper clip collections and his pigeons, Benj has carefully delineated passions that border on obsessions. Like Ernie with Rubber Duckie, James is deeply attached to a beloved pretend animal- in his case Curious George. Also like Ernie, he's always inventing little songs and cooking up madcap schemes that he wants his brother to participate in, and like Bert, Benj usually resists strenuously. Even physically, Benj is tall, lean, vertical, like Bert, and James is shorter, rounder, horizontal like Ernie.
So many of us have kids who seem so different from each other that we wonder: "How could these kids have come from the same parents?" But recently I discovered that there's a physiological reason for my children's differences. My boys have two syndromes considered neurologically opposite: Benj was diagnosed with hyperlexia (a form of high-functioning autism characterized by early reading and difficulty with social interaction) at the age of three, and more recently, James was diagnosed with dyslexia. Benj read fluently when he was a little over two, and was spelling words like "fabulous," "celebration," "and delicious" with letter blocks shortly thereafter; he hasn't ever missed a spelling word on a test. James didn't read until he was almost seven, and at nine, still has difficulty spelling very basic words. I always knew my kids were polar opposites, but then I learned that their brains actually work in opposite ways. You can imagine the challenge of negotiating between these two different personalities and creating a harmonious home environment!
From early on, I made the boys' differences a source of interest, humor, and compassion. When Benj was six and James three, I invented a song in which I'd sing of 3 notable differences between them followed by a resounding similarity. "Benj likes it neat and James likes it messy; Benj likes chocolate, James likes vanilla; Benj likes computers, James likes painting, but both Benj and James have big blue eyes!" Virtually every night they'd beg me to sing them "The Benj and James Song," and I never had any difficulty coming up with new differences to sing of!
We've always talked openly about what each boy is especially good at and what he has trouble with. Stronger and more adept James opens tricky lids for his less robust older brother, while Benj explains complicated football plays, musical arrangements, or weather patterns to his less detail-oriented little brother. Steeped-in-mythology James helps Benj with his Greek Myth homework, while Benj read out loud to baby James for hours and now spells words for and teaches James about homonyms.
Their differences can of course be frustrating for both boys, but it's the complementarity in the difference that has allowed each to serve as the other's best therapy. Benj overcame his noise sensitivity in large part because of his loud and intense baby brother. Rough-housing with James has helped Benj become more tolerant of people in his physical space. Having to wait for Benj to be ready before beginning an activity has taught James to be more patient. When one boy is being especially difficult for the other to cope with, I try to minimize frustration by explaining the difficulties in terms of a contrast in temperament rather than a personal rejection or deliberate attempt to antagonize. The boys have come to see each other's quirks not as deficiencies but as differences of mental style, to accept that there are multiple ways of looking at situations, to embrace that other people can like very different things, react in very different ways, and still be our friends.
A classic Ernie and Bert skit speaks so well to our experience -- in it, the two buddies sing the "La La La" song, a paean to the many beautiful words that begin with the letter "L". Of course they have very different ideas about what a pretty "L" word would be! Ernie encourages initially reticent Bert to think of some "pretty little words" that begin with L. Bert quickly overcomes his skepticism and belts forth with unselfconscious abandon: "lemon," "light-bulb" (Ernie is less than impressed); "lamppost", "lump in my oatmeal!" At this point, a nonplussed Ernie interjects that he was thinking of more lilting and lovely words like laughter, lullaby, lollipop, lights in the sky, and then Bert interrupts Ernie's string of lovely words with a joyful: "Linoleum!" But by the song's end, they're both laughing, enjoying each other's choices, and singing in harmony. I get a version of the "L" song every single day, and it's the best lesson in love I could ever receive.