Our Challenging Childhoods

J. Andrew Shelley
5 min readNov 30, 2021

Episode 10 of American Butterfly: Birth Rules

Dad didn’t spend time trying to understand why his children behaved the way they did. Any mechanistic thinking was spent on theories about how big things work: from interest rates, to America’s retreat from Vietnam, or even discrimination against the short (White) man in modern basketball.

One of his favorite topics when we were young was how the unions worked to gum up the American economy. Dad ranted against the glazers union in the Mid-South. He had worked for Paul Trenton himself, owner of Paul Trenton Glass. Unions slowed down work and raised costs. When he owned his own glass company, the unions were particularly pernicious. As a small company he was the real little guy in the equation. He had to agree to whatever concessions were demanded, no matter the waste.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

In the eighties, big American unions took on a new level of conspiracy for my father. Yes, he would admit that the Japanese were doing a good job of manufacturing small cars, TV’s, and the Walkman. The real reason why America was slipping behind were the union contracts that kept each American company from competing.

“The Japanese just don’t have the same obligations,” he said. “They are able to produce less expensive vehicles because their labor costs are lower.” It mattered little that the Japanese continued winning market share after they built assembly plants in Mississippi, Kentucky, and even Tennessee. He never really stopped complaining about the conspiracies of unfair advantages: “The Toyota employees in Smyrna, Tennessee still don’t get paid what a General Motors worker in Detroit does.”

His brother-in-law’s employer, International Harvester, once owned 95% of the market for tractors in the US and much of the world. He told us the history, “Harvester was crushed by union contracts that de-motivated the average Joe.” Eventually, Harvester sold off its tractor and construction units in 1986 and disappeared except for its Navistar trucking business.

“The end of another great American company,” Dad mourned.

To him, its failure had nothing to do with the company’s long history of questionable management, ownership seeking monopoly power rather than superior products, or simple market competition. He never did listen or learn enough to understand the whole story.

Mom, however, did not complain too much about the unions. In her vision of capitalism and our free America, people should have the right to band together when and how they wanted.

Mom did, however, deeply explore the two core determinants of her children’s behavior: their inherent natures and their birth order. She thought there was little a parent could do to change the future that mantled a child. It makes perfect sense that Kevin Leman’s The Birth Order Book was published the year before I was born. She had to have read it.


On the one hand, Mom’s dedication to Adlerian psychological principles seemed to go against the “doubt the science” rule. On the other hand, psychology has always been a pretty easy realm for debate and even ridicule, a soft science that offers up many perspectives. Even though there is “mainstream” psychiatric thought, a person can find almost any counter-stream of thinking to justify a position that resonates with them. She found just what she needed.

My persona fit the “firstborn” model perfectly. Responsible. A quasi-adult from the start: “Mom, Dad, me, and the kids.” I was serious, interested in performing well while keeping the family functional.

Truthfully, I forgot about our earliest years until my sister and brother started regaling my wife with tales.

They described breakfast to her:

I remember watching him, perched on the red step-stool next to the stove, cooking eggs for us kids.

The worst moment was bringing Mom her coffee, hearing the dreaded rattle of the cup against the saucer, praying it wouldn’t spill onto her bed.

I had almost forgotten those things. I do admit, though, to an involuntary cringe at the sound of a rattling cup and saucer.

My sister was a middle child first, a girl second. Such children sometimes blend. Sometimes they don’t, so the thinking goes. Stuck between two very different boys, she couldn’t easily fit in. Not even two years younger than I, she wasn’t granted the authority of the elder boy. Less than a year older than JT, she was never given the latitude of the baby. A night owl in a family of larks. A slow-riser in a family that poked fun at a person’s differences in the morning.

Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash

John Thomas, JT, was the baby, a surprise.

Mom told us for as long as I could remember, “I cried for a month after I learned I was having JT, but I have laughed ever since!”

Perhaps that became a foundational memory for him.

My brother was the epitome of the youngest child. The most able to navigate amongst everyone. Not academically strong but, in the practical world, the smartest: the comedian, the prankster, the daredevil, the athlete. Most people loved JT and wanted to hang out with him. Physically, he always faced some challenge: an eye patch for years, glasses, or crazy crooked teeth that prompted him to smile carefully.

Despite the challenges, his closed-mouth, back-of-the-throat, machine-gun laugh was infectious. You wanted that laugh on your side. He rarely lost a fight.

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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love in the modern world.

It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.

All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.

J. Andrew Shelley

People first. Top writer in Culture. An organizational technologist advancing more listening, understanding, building and less outrage. Book: American Butterfly