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How Siblings Shape Each Others And How Parents Can Help

It was a single bounce of a tennis ball that made me a better sibling—and, as it turned out, a better person too. The ball bounced many years ago, around the time I was in fourth grade and my youngest brother, Bruce, was in second. Bruce and I were in our home, playing a game of our own devising that involved volleying the tennis ball off our basement wall. At one point when Bruce was about to begin his turn, I turned away, then turned back, caught his eye and immediately saw guilt there. In the span of a second, a wordless conversation played out.

I cheated, he said without saying. I missed my shot and was hoping you didn’t notice.

I know.

I’m a little bit embarrassed.

I’m a little bit embarrassed for you.

Are you mad?

Nah, it’s not a big deal. Let’s play.

That was that—except it wasn’t. The one thing we didn’t say in that moment—but said with real words, many times in the decades that followed—was how bloody wonderful the entire exchange was, how in a fleeting, silent instant, we had shared understanding, empathy, contrition, forgiveness, a sense of proportion and a strange, intimate peek inside each other’s minds. The fraternal dynamic at play in that chance second informed and improved not just the relationship we shared with each other, but the ones we would later share with anyone else later in life when a similar kind of compassionate mind-reading would be a handy thing to have.

The sibling bond, for all of us, is nothing short of a full-time, total-immersion dress rehearsal for life. Our brothers and sisters teach us about comradeship and combat, loyalty and rivalry, when to stand up for ourselves and when to stand down, how to share confidences and the wages of breaking them. We learn about selfishness and selflessness, mentoring and listening—all of the skills we start life lacking and all of which we’d jolly well better learn if we’re going to function in the larger world outside the home.

In the process, we form a connection with our brothers and sisters that we’ll never have with anyone else. Our parents leave us too early, our spouses and children come along too late. Our sibs are the only people we’ll ever know who are with us through the entire ride.

Sibling socialization starts early—and it has its most powerful expression in what can often be the free fire zone of the playroom. Parents aren’t exaggerating when they say that their children seem constantly to be fighting. They are. One study from the University of Toronto found that in the two to four age group, siblings engage in an average of 6.3 fights per hour—or one every 9.5 minutes. In the three to seven age group it gets better—but only a little—with an average of 2.5 conflicts in a 45-minute play session, or 3.5 per hour. And for the purposes of the studies, a conflict was not defined as a single shove or taunt or other shot across the siblingbow. It meant at least three sequential hostile exchanges—provocation, reaction, and response to the reaction. Factor in the smaller-bore stuff and siblings are, in effect, constantly at war.

Most of those fights involve property—the familial felony of playing with, touching or even looking at someone else’s stuff. “We found that 95% of younger siblings and 93% of older siblings said the taking of property was a major problem in their relationships,” psychologist Catherine Salmon of the University of Redlands told me for my 2011 book The Sibling Effect. “It’s a very important part of the development of personal identity—the idea that ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.’”

But property is by no means the only casus belli. A cross word, a mean-spirited joke, an encroachment across the invisible line that separates your place from your big sister’s place at the dinner table can all be cues for the hostile shelling to begin. Such endless clashing ought to be a highly non-adaptive thing, but the fact that in the long arc of human history it hasn’t been selected against means that it isn’t. Indeed, it’s a very good thing.

Conflicts develop in the real world all the time, but try engaging in longterm unresolved warfare with your friends in school and you’ll soon find yourself alone on the playground. Brothers and sisters, however, aren’t going anywhere; you can argue and brawl all you want, but you’re still going to wind up in the same shared bedroom at the end of the day. This makes sibling fighting a paradoxically low-stakes habit, and that means all kinds of behavioral trial-and-error can go on until, hopefully, the best lessons about conflict avoidance and resolution are learned.

“Competition and conflict will always happen,” Shirley McGuire, associate professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco told me. “[But] warmth, cooperation and trust will happen too.”

A wonderfully designed 2009 study out of Concordia University in Montreal illustrated this nicely. The investigators gathered a sample group of sibling pairs in three age groups—4 to 8, 6 to 8 and 7 to 10, and set them to doing what they’d probably be doing anyway if given a chance, which was fighting about something. The researchers (with the parents present) asked the pairs to describe a common area of conflict between them—the mere mention of which was typically all it took to get them quarreling about it too. They then compared what happened when parents intervened to resolve the conflict and what happened if the grownups stood back and let things unfold in their own way.

No surprise, there were fewer breakdowns in negotiations when parents stepped in—and no physical fighting at all. No surprise either, there was likelier to be some kind of resolution reached, with the parent imposing a solution. But the imposingpart was both the key and the problem. History has shown that warring countries are less likely to return to the battlefield if they reach an armistice themselves than if other countries force them to the negotiating table. So too, siblings who are left to find their own way to settle their differences are likelier to reach a lasting solution to their differences.

Significantly, the Montreal researchers found that kids who argued things out on their own did a better job not just of ending the fight and making up, but of devising some rule that would help them avoid the same argument in the future—don’t touch my toy unless you ask, say, or if you use my iPad you have to recharge it. That kind of on-the-fly, interpersonal legislating is critical among friends, coworkers and spouses—all people with whom we share destructible relationships that can’t tolerate too much repetition of the same fight over and over again.

Encouragingly too, the researchers found that kids do a good job of calibrating their argument techniques depending on the age of the family member with whom they’re fighting. Kids in the middle age group, for example, generally take care to add a justification to their point if they’re arguing up the age spectrum, not merely saying to an older sibling, “I don’t want you touching my stuff,” but rather, “I don’t want you touching my stuff because…” an elaboration and justification the big sib is mature enough to respect and require. When they argue down the age spectrum to a little brother or sister they’re more inclined to leave that out because below a certain age reasons matter a whole lot less than rules.

For parents, the fact that these subtle, factory-loaded skills exist at all can be something of a surprise, which is why they too often big-foot their way into an argument when a laissez-faire approach would work best. There are, of course, times a parent must step in. When a fight has turned—or threatens to turn—physical, the combatants clearly need to be separated. Similarly, when a stronger willed child is taking advantage of a weaker one, mom or dad should bring a halt to things. Usually, it is the older kid taking advantage of the younger one, but that’s not always the case, especially when the siblings are close in age and the somewhat older one just happens to be a more timid or sensitive sort.

Those situations aside, it’s best for parents to eavesdrop freely, but tread lightly. The whole purpose of most of the playroom wars is for the kids to learn to find their own way to peace.

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It’s not just the crucible of combat that can help siblings socialize one another, it’s also the far gentler business of imitation and emulation. The adoring little sibling who follows an older brother or sister onto the swim team or into the debate club, or who aims to be a National Merit Scholar because that’s what a big sib did is a real and powerful thing. But so is the little brother who wants nothing to do with the high school football team precisely because his brother played on it, or the little sister who wouldn’t go near student council after her sister became president.

Both strategies—known straightforwardly enough as identification and de-identification—are equally likely to turn up among siblings and both are at least partly driven by the never-ending fight for parental attention. Parents are eminently exhaustible creatures, with a fixed amount of energy, time and, yes, money to devote to their kids. Every calorie, hour or dollar spent on one child is, by definition, denied to another. Almost from the moment of birth, kids thus try to game that system, doing what they can to get their share—or more than their share—of what the parents have to offer.

Sometimes that means going with what they know works. If a big brother or sister has always won family applause for starring in school plays, it stands to reason you could do the same. On the other hand, even if you do land the big part, you’ll still be sharing the attention with your sibling. Maybe it’s better to aim for something else entirely—the math club or band, say, and get 100% of the attention for being the family brain or musician.

“Siblings are devilishly clever,” psychologist Frank Sulloway of the University of California, Berkely told me. “Much smarter than psychologists. They are constantly trying to fine-tune their niche to squeeze the maximum benefits out of their parents.”

That can lead them to squeezing the maximum benefits out of their lives as well—provided they do things right. Identifying with the goals of an older sibling clearly worked for the Peyton and Eli Manning, both of whom followed their big brother Cooper—and for that matter their father Archie—into football. Archie had a long career with the New Orleans Saints and Cooper seemed destined for NFL greatness, until a congenital spinal condition disqualified him. As for Peyton and Eli—well, if four Super Bowl appearances and three championship rings between them doesn’t look like success, it’s hard to say what does.

Then too, there are the siblings who serve as equally powerful examples of the benefits of the de-identification strategy—the Emanuel brothers for example. Yes, you probably know of middle brother Rahm—the current Mayor of Chicago and former Congressman and White House chief of staff. But then there’s big brother Ezekiel—author, bioethicist and Harvard-trained chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania; and little sib Ari, Hollywood power-broker and co-CEO of the William Morris Endeavor agency. Hard to find a slacker in that nest of chicks.

Clearly, both strategies can go awry as often as they can go right. Would Billy Ripken, the journeyman Major League infielder who developed a bit of a bad boy rep have done better if he hadn’t followed big brother, Hall of Famer, and national legend Cal into baseball, and instead found his own way? Maybe. Would Neil Bush, who got tangled up in a 1980s savings and loan scandal and has long been something of the dark gray—if not entirely black—sheep of the Bush clan have done better if he’d followed the family lead and entered public service? Could be.

There’s no way of saying how these things shake out and often the reasoning is allex post facto—with parents applauding or lamenting the path their children took only when those children reach adulthood and everyone can see where those paths led. But parents can do a better job of steering their children when multiple directions are still open to them. The key is to be alert to the contexts—or what family psychologists call the domains—in which each child genuinely thrives and then provide encouragement.

That’s harder than it seems. I came from a family of four boys, all of whom dreamed of being Broadway or movie stars. I might well have achieved that goal except for the teensy fact that I had not a shred of musical or acting skill, though my three brothers did. Nonetheless, I looked happy—kind of—when I did land a part in a school play so I was encouraged to keep at it. Had I done so into adulthood, things would clearly not have ended well. On the other hand, if I had had native skill, I might have been reluctant to take advantage of it if my older brother was already thriving in the same niche and I didn’t want to be compared found wanting.

The trick, or at least the one that seems to be working for my wife and myself as we raise our now 12 and 14 year old daughters, is watching as unobtrusively as possible for what their creative default setting is when they’re left by themselves. Both of our girls study dance, but the younger one lives it, breathes it, drinks it in, hanging pictures of ballet stars on her walls and fussing endlessly to get her bun perfect before class because that’s the way the pros roll. Both daughters similarly study writing in school, but it’s the older one who plants herself at the computer, plugs in her earbuds, and writes thousands of words of short stories and fan fiction because, all things being equal, that’s what she’d prefer to be doing.

O.K., we’re lucky because those signals aren’t exactly subtle. But all kids semaphore their joy—with their faces, with their conversation, with their energy level after they go to soccer practice or study for a biology exam or read a history assignment and reveal in nuanced ways if they’ve found something they love or are just passing through. Parents, as trail guides, can help them along.

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If siblings can steer one another into different interests and different careers, it’s equally true that they can steer them to places they shouldn’t go at all. Long before the teen years arrive, parents are already worrying about the whole panoply of dangers that await their children there—drinking, smoking, drugs, pregnancy, even criminality. The risks are very real and, as study after study has shown, they become realer still when an older sibling has already fallen victim to them.

A younger sibling who’s big brother or sister drinks is twice as likely to pick up the habit too. For smoking the danger increases fourfold, and for teen pregnancy it’s up to six-fold. “Having an older sibling exposes you to things firstborns simply aren’t exposed to,” said Susan Averett, a professor of business and economics at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., who has studied birth order and decision making. “It is a different experience and you develop in a different way.”

How serious the risk is can often depend on age—with chronological proximity spelling trouble. A nine-year-old boy is simply not as likely to be moving in the same social circles as his 16-year-old brother. But if the sibs are, say, 16 and 17, things are very different, with the little brother far likelier to mingle with the big brother’s smoking and drinking friends.

Gender plays a role as well. A close-in-age little sister is less likely to associate with her big brother’s friends than she would a big sister’s, which means she has less of a chance to be exposed to risky behaviors. The quality of the sibling relationship—regardless of gender—can also have an effect, and here, paradoxically, sibs who don’t get along all that well are safer than sibs who do.

“When siblings are very close,” said psychologist Elizabeth Stormshak of the University of Oregon, “that relationship becomes more powerful and meaningful and can influence risk behavior as well.”

But there are ways around the problems, and Patricia East, a psychologist at the University of California School of Medicine, sees them in play particularly in her studies of teen pregnancy. As with other risk behaviors, a big age gap helps here, as does the same kind of de-identification that occurs when a little sib decides not to pursue the same extracurricular activities as a big sib.

“[The younger sister] decides to purposely go the other way,” said East. “She decides her sister’s role is teen mom and hers will be, say, high [academic] achiever.”

The key for all of these risky behaviors begins with close parental supervision. A ninth grader who starts spending time with an older sib’s 10-grade friends should be carefully monitored—as should the 10th grader in the first place. It helps too if a wayward older sibling is punished in the proper ways. Penalties for smoking or drinking or using drugs should be swift, strict and sure—and it’s important that it all happen with as little family uproar as possible. To a little sib, drama equals attention, and attention equals fun and if sneaking a smoke or a beer is all it takes to stir things up, well, what’s not to like?

For teen pregnancy, of course, things are different. The child-mom needs love, support and care—again with a minimum of histrionics. The fewer such distractions there are, the more the little sister can observe just how impossibly difficult, limiting and exhausting being a mother can be, making her less likely to go that way herself.

There are, surely, uncountable other ways siblings color, shape and shade one another. Girls and boys teach each other about the mysterious mind of theopposite sex; oldest, youngest and middle-born siblings wrestle with the crapshoot of birth order and in so doing, learn about power and status and making the most of a niche they didn’t choose; even the little lessons in parenting that come naturally from babysitting a little sibling—or being babysat by a big one—can pay dividends years later.

The only participants in this life-long dance are, of course, the siblings themselves, and parents who step in too heavily can disrupt what can and should be graceful and growing thing. But that doesn’t mean they can’t coach and coax and gently teach the steps. The goal for all parents should be to help the sons and daughters they love and care for more than anything else in the world grow up to be adults who love and care for one another too.

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