Because I know you.... Because I've been following you around my entire life. I mean, I been looking up to you since I was four, Dean. Studying you, trying to be just like my big brother. So yeah, I know you. Better than anyone else in the whole world.
Thus says Sam to Dean when convincing him that he "can see right through" Dean's
The implications of this speech for the Wee!Chesters are huge. I've seen them run the gamut this week from "Oooh... he was FOUR before he started looking up to Dean. That must mean John was his hero before that!" to "Look! Confirmation of Sam's hero-worship!" and of course, the highly intriguing, "Well, clearly that means that Dean wasn't his primary caregiver from the get-go."
Well, of *course* Dean wasn't his primary caregiver, but that doesn't mean Dean wasn't still a HUGE part of Sam's domestic care. A five-year-old is absolutely capable of helping out with a nine-month-old...not for extended periods of time, and not without any supervision, but certainly on a regular basis. Dean could easily have changed the occasional diaper, practiced his own reading by reading to Sam, and most importantly, kept Sam company and occupied his attention while John dealt with the major stuff.
John himself indicates that the change from "father" to "drill sergeant" was a gradual one. Given his and Dean's statements to the effect that John's primary motivation when it came to the boys was one of protectiveness, it's actually more likely that John was unwilling to leave the boys alone for any length of time. I've always thought it was fairly clear that the incident portrayed in "Something Wicked" was a. rare at that age or b. the first (or nearly first) time John had left them alone for an extended period of time. For an hour? Sure. Six? Sure. Overnight? I'm not so sure. Even with Dean's speech in AHBLII, it's unclear whether they were completely alone while John was off on hunts. Again, this is one of those things that was probably a progression - from supervised to an hour or two to an evening, to a weekend, to weeks once Dean's old enough to take care of just about everything (including driving if necessary).
So why does Sam pick *four* as the age when he begins "looking up" to Dean? Well, there's a few reasons. First off, four years old is about as far back as most people can go for independent (and not planted after-the-fact) memories. Simply put, that's probably when he became conscious of his own surroundings and *remembers* looking up to Dean for support and examples of what to do.
Second, developmentally, at about four years old, kids start to consciously pick their role models. Somewhere between the toddler (2-3) and preschool (4-5) ages, kids learn to look outward instead of inward (egocentricity). Sam probably didn't go to preschool, so much...he may or may not have done, but one thing is certain, and that is that his social circle would immediately have included Dean.
Third, at four years old, Sam would have been old enough to begin not only picking his role models, but testing his own abilities. Remember that Dean was four, almost five, when he started taking on more and more responsibility. (Which also means, if you're paying attention, that Dean would have been at just this same age when John suddenly became not only his hero, but his entire world. No surprise that *he* has always looked up to Dad.) It's expected and natural for Sam to be looking outward to what he can do. He'd want to imitate. And Dean's the closest person there is - just like in a "normal" sibling relationship. By his own admission, he's always "followed" Dean - but at the age of four, he's old enough to even try to keep up. (And not coincidentally, John could expect that Sam at this age will be able to shoulder the same self-reliance as Dean at the same age.)
For the record, I don't think Sam stopped hero-worshipping John because he started hero-worshipping Dean. I think he'd always had a bit of worship for them both. I think the difference is that he reacted differently to John's expectations, believing his father disappointed in him - particularly because he is not the same person as Dean. Notice the other critically important piece of Sam's speech: "Studying you, trying to be just like my big brother." Because the hero-worship is also tied to Sam's attempt to model himself after Dean. Which, of course, is something he couldn't help but fail at, because he's NOT Dean, he's SAM.
Incidentally? Four and five years are also the ages at which kids frequently decide to model their behaviour specifically after the heroes they see around them. Peter Pan, Batman, Superman...and similar role-playing begins around this age, too.
So. We have little wee!Sammy reaching the age at which he notes his two primary caretakers as individuals (and yes, even if all Dean used to do was occupy Sam, that counts--but I think he did much more than that even as young as five/six), as well as the people who take care of *him* (outward thinking, instead of egocentric), and in seeking his *father's* approval, he determines that "being like Dean" is the way to go.
Why? Because if he's like Dean, John will like him more. John will give him autonomy (and stop treating him like a baby? or perhaps let him come to things in his own time). John will trust him. Because it's Dean's ability and maturity (relative to Sam's) that wins John's approval and affection, in Sam's estimation.
So his hero-worship of Dean growing up is really also an extension of his hero-worship of John. But he's SAM. He doesn't react to John the same way, he shares John's stubbornness and digs his heels in when challenged, leading to the "butting heads" dynamic. He isn't really interested in the car, try as he might (and does anyone else REALLY want to see fics with little Sam desperately trying to learn car maintenance and just finding it mind-numbingly boring?), and he is interested in school and seeking normal, even though he also wants to model his rebel-without-a-cause brother. And trying to be Dean just sets him up for failure, which makes him think John is disappointed.
Now, would John have loved two sons who both wanted to learn how to fix the Impala? Who both shared his salt-of-the-earth sensibility? Who both had an innate talent for sharp-shooting? My bet is that sometimes, yes. But on the other hand, he probably *also* would have loved two sons who were natural students, who had a gift for research and lore, who were socialized enough to be able to identify with the people they try to help. Mostly, though, I think it's a classic case of any parent-child relationship: sometimes he got very frustrated with both Dean and Sam, but in general he could not have been more proud of both of them.
But because Sam and John wound up butting heads, Sam interpreted John's frustration as disappointment, and thus rebelled even further. Vicious cycle. In fact, a lot of his "Dad screwed us up!" riff in S1 is an extension of that rebellion. But he's gained enough distance to realize that John loved them both desperately and in their own ways, as well as appreciate, for what it's worth, the ways in which John's methods of raising him and Dean to survive have been effective and necessary.
Next week's meta will be about car maintenance, because SQUEE.
ETA: I watched "Something Wicked" again this morning in light of the comments to this, and y'all are right: I give. By their age in the flashback, John's been leaving them regularly.
Nonetheless, the "progression" idea stands, and is backed up by canon. I just had it a little protracted from the evidence.
Since that's the case, then it's also indicated that John expressed his overprotection by keeping them on the move, together, with limited ability to reach out of the family. That also makes sense given what we're told.
The point, though, is that Sam probably hero-worshipped *both* Dean and John up until the point where he decided he wasn't ever going to live up to Dean's example, perfection, etc., and when his own personality matched with John's led them to constantly be in conflict. Even when he "rejected" John's way of life, it was out of a sense of personal failure...failing in his father's eyes (which of course, we know John never really believed).