A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a middle child

Toby reading book

Winston Churchill once described Russia as, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. I often feel the same about our middle child Toby.

Is it just him? Or does this sound familiar to parents of three (or more) children?

His older and younger sister are like two peas in a pod. Endlessly chatty, determined to succeed, perpetually demanding (in a good way, mostly). They monopolise airtime and attention while Toby sits quietly in a corner, lost in a world of his own.

He’s so different from the other two. And, depending on which way the wind is blowing, he often contradicts himself.

This is the child who refuses to tidy up his bedroom in the morning but volunteers to tidy up the kitchen in the evening.

This is the child who reads with the care and proficiency of a child two or three years older but who makes basic spelling errors because he can’t be bothered.

This is the child who generally likes to expend the minimum of physical effort but won three races at his school sports day last week.

This is the child who is uninterested in most things but when you get him talking about one of those rare topics he is passionate about – the London Underground, cars, buildings and landmarks – you cannot stop him for love or money.

This is the child who may well be the smartest of our three children but is also the laziest.

This is the child who fades into the background and takes responsibility for nothing when his older brother is around but steps up and cheerfully adopts the caring big brother role when Isaac is out of the picture.

This is the child who is most like me and who I should therefore understand the most but, in reality, is the one I understand the least.

Riddle. Mystery. Enigma.

Every time I think I have worked him out, he does something to throw me off the scent. I’m convinced he’s doing it as part of some Machiavellian scheme to wind me up.

He’s delightful but infuriating, laid-back but stubborn. He’s the one I’m most likely to both laugh with and shout at.

Why? Maybe it’s precisely because he is the child who is most like me. When I see his successes I see my own childhood achievements reflected back at me. When I see his less pleasing side I see my own failings in miniature. He is full of all the same contradictions I am but which have gently been smoothed over by adulthood, like an iron to a creased shirt.

Kids, eh?

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