I was in 11th grade English class when I got the news: roughly fifteen years after I’d started asking my parents for a sibling, my stepmom had delivered (literally and figuratively). After school, I drove to the hospital and met my half-sister, Sophia, for the first time. Most newborns are wrinkly and weird-looking (I mean–can you blame them? They just spent a few months inside of a person), but she was perfect to me, and I loved her instantly. I was finally a big sister.
Being a significantly older sibling can be strange. It’s a very different sisterly experience, since we aren’t really growing up together. I haven’t been around as much as I would if we were closer in age.
A little after her first birthday, I left to the other side of the country for college. She was in preschool while I was having a quarter-life crisis in NYC. She was probably learning the alphabet while I was in a windowless cubicle making Excel spreadsheets during my brief stint in corporate America.
But being a significantly older sibling is also wonderful. Anyone over the age of 12 is an adult to Sophia, but I get to be one of the cool ones who can still keep up and (mostly) speak her language. Birthdays and other gift-giving holidays are the best, because they still feel like magical occasions for her, and I get to be a part of making them that way. I can give her my favorite books from childhood, I have a legitimate excuse to spend more money at Target, and shopping for her is fun because clothes are always cuter when they’re miniature (three words: baby Converse sneakers).
When she’s old enough, I can give her the wise older sister advice she can’t get from her parents. I can be her confidant if she wants me to be, and I can’t wait. Personally, I’m not ready to have children of my own and probably won’t be for a while, if at all, but being in your early 20s and spending time with a 6-year-old teaches you some surprising things.
Here are just a few life lessons that I’ve learned from my baby sister.
1. Just take a compliment.
Nothing brings out my awkward quite like when somebody pays me a compliment. Call it years of self-consciousness coming into play, but my immediate reaction is to turn it down and crawl into a hole. Most kids haven’t yet built up that ego-crushing awareness, and that’s great. When someone compliments my sister, her immediate response is, “Thank you!” And it’s not in a snobby way at all—she just accepts that the person means what s/he’s said and moves on, happily. We all deserve to love ourselves and accept the love that is given to us. Just saying “thanks” might be a good baby step.
(I should note that the “don’t talk to strangers” rule comes into play here–if someone catcalls you, or offers you candy, do whatever you need to do to be safe!)
2. Savor every crumb.
There’s nothing quite like watching your baby sister down the syrup container that came with her waffle like it’s a shot of tequila. The aftermath was shockingly similar: she got a huge boost of energy, partied hard, and then crashed into some heavy sleep. She’s pretty good about eating her vegetables, but boy oh boy, when she eats something she loves, the pleasure is real. I’ve watched her eat every crumb off a plate of cake and enjoy it just as much as the first bite. We should all relish the things that make us happy in the same way: completely and unabashedly.
3. Exercise your imagination.
Kids say the darndest things, and I’m totally jealous. They spill stories so peculiar and fantastic, in part because they aren’t completely checked by reality yet. Whenever I need a little inspiration, I can count on Sophia. Playing pretend with her is always a nostalgia trip that brings me closer to the childhood imagination just out of my reach. Practicing a little creativity day-to-day keeps things fun and fulfilling.
4. Sometimes the simplest things can bring you the most joy, like naps.
Sophia is amazing at entertaining herself. Can’t do the maze on the front of the kid’s menu? No problem, draw something epic for the fridge on the blank side instead. Everything is new and exciting when you’re young, and if you can find a way to channel that in your everyday life, it’ll help make things feel a little less drab. But it’s also important to find a balance between stimulation and relaxation. Kids get to nap all the time because they’re growing or whatever, but adults deserve a break every once in a while, too! As someone who loses days to the Internet without knowing what exactly I did on it, I could probably benefit from the simple joys of making art and napping in my free time.
5. Don’t apologize for speaking out, but don’t be rude about it, either.
My sister makes it pretty clear when she has something to say. She does this adorable thing where she’ll begin a statement with, “Excuse me? Excuse me, everyone?” And while it probably wouldn’t be as cute if I started a sentence in the same way, she’s got the right idea. A lot of kids aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and they don’t apologize for it either. Sophia’s also taught me—with her “excuse me” bit—that a little politeness goes a long way in gathering a receptive audience.
6. Mistakes happen. Don’t sweat it.
When I was a kid, I was notorious for spilling beverages on my mom’s lap on airplanes. (She quickly learned to always bring a change of clothes in her carry-on bag.) My sister has inherited similar levels of clumsiness. She used to bawl when she got food and drinks all over herself, but lately, after the initial shock, she brushes it off like it ain’t no thang. It’s interesting to watch her learn not to sweat the small stuff. Most mistakes are easily fixable, and we don’t need to beat ourselves up when we make them.