Tag Archives: siblings

The impact of siblings: Five things you are probably sharing

There I am with my sibs, dressed to impess at the Grand Canyon.

I might have just learned the legendary tales I heard about my behavior at the Grand Canyon, or I actually formed some of my earliest memories on that trip when I was 3 1/2  years old. It might be the latter because I remember loving that cowboy hat I’m wearing in the picture. My oldest brother bought it for me with his own money! I also remember getting home with it and securing it in my toy box/treasure chest by stuffing it in and sitting on the lid. Maybe I just remember the trauma of my brother’s fury when he found out I’d ruined it. Or maybe  I’m remembering the verse my older brothers added the song they wrote about my shameful exploits (yes, that really happened), which I can still sing. For good and ill, my siblings made a difference.

Siblings finally found their place within the last twenty years as one of the main influences that make us who we are. They are kind of at the end of a list of understandings about human development that kept growing. The list is someting like this. We’re born with certain traits, as any parent can tell you. We’re shaped by our early experiences with our parents and other caregivers, especially mom. Our genes help define us. Our socioeconomic environment shapes us. Our the race and other labels pasted on us force us into molds. And then, the researchers finally started talking about our siblings. They may influence us more than we think! Much of this post aligns with an early proponent of their importance: Jeffrey Kluger in his 2006 book, The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us.  [And an NPR story, of course].

Family systems used to be of primary importance

Before Europe became overly individualistic and spawned the epitome of it’s philosophy: the United States, our membership in a family, our relationships with parents and siblings, was the primary way we were identified.

The two Testaments of the Bible demonstrate the primacy of family by placing one at the center of the story: that of Moses and Jesus.

  • In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister, are among those named as opposing Moses’ leadership. (In Exodus, they are at his right hand, but some say they could also be construed to be members of his clan, not siblings).
  • Jesus’s siblings go with him to the wedding at Cana (John 2). Later they seek an audience with him (Matt. 12, Mk. 3, Luke 8). They ask him to prove his messiahship (John 7). They are among those waiting for Pentecost in Acts 1. His brother James leads the Jersualem church, and with another brother, Jude, writes part of the New Testament Canon. (Some say these were older step-siblings from Joseph’s first marriage. Some claim they were cousins. Some say Mary had one child and was, in the flesh, a perpetual vigin, or why was she left in the care of John?).

The plain reading of the Bible reinforces what most people in history have seen as obvious: families are central to life. That assumption still holds, although it is less relevant than it used to be. Nevertheless, Harry and Megan can scandalize the world by breaking from the royal family. Trump’s and Biden’s children are central to the drama that surrounds them. If your parents are still with us, one of their friends probably got the report on how you are doing this week. I’ve already reported to two of my friends and it is just Thursday, as I write. Everyone, including me, cares about the family.

The researchers validate our siblings still matter

By this time, we might all resent how social scientists keep discovering what everyone already knew. They seem to think nothing is true until they prove it with a peer reviewed research project. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how their data leads them to think our siblings have made much more difference in our lives than they are usually credited.

From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. At our Easter brunch I overheard one older sib instructing the much younger grandchild how to behave for most of the afternoon.

  • They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to.
  • They show us how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them.
  • Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys.
  • They steer us into risky behavior or away from it. They make us brave or fearful.
  • They form a protective buffer against family upheaval and sometimes cause it.
  • They compete for family recognition and come to terms–or blows–over such impossibly charged issues as parental favoritism.
  • Whether they love and accept us or not is huge.
  • Whether they stick with us or not could prove life-saving or deadly.

Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we’ll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life. “Siblings,” says family sociologist Katherine Conger of UC Davis, “are with us for the whole journey.”

5 enduring impacts of sibling relationships

Not appreciating being dethroned by my one-year-old sister
The fighting is useful

My younger sister and I tied jump ropes around the necks of our teddy bears and engaged in  hysterical aerial combat. But I don’t remember having many fights with her directly, even though we shared a room  for probably too long. We still feel close even though we rarely see each other.

With our older brothers it was another story. To hear us tell it, we lived in a constant state of preparedness for the next attack. They were five and seven years older than me. So you can call me a “lost middle child” or the firstborn of the second family. The year I was born, our family moved to a new home in another city which my dad helped build with his own hands. My sister and I were part of that new beginning and probably responsible, as far as our brothers were concerned, for what they lost. Neither of us were welcome in the world of my older brothers. I spent quite a bit of time locked in a bathroom for fear of them, or locked in a closet because of them, or hiding under a bed. I had to be fast on my feet or my very accurate brother could nail me in the back with a green walnut.

“In general,” says psychologist Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh, “parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.” All that proximity breeds an awful lot of intimacy–and an awful lot of friction. Being “stuck” with the involuntary relationships we have with sibs develops certain skills that can prove useful later in life.

Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that, on average, sibs between 3 and 7 years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times an hour. Kids in the 2-to-4 age group top out at 6.3–or more than one clash every 10 minutes, according to a Canadian study. “Getting along with a sister or brother,” Kramer says dryly, “can be a frustrating experience.” But think of all the lessons you learned about how to deal with future difficult people! You might want to take a minute and jot down how you learned to deal with conflict in your family, you are probably still acting out the same pattern, perhaps unconsciously.

Favoritism leaves a lasting  impression

I think I was about 50 years old when my sister stated what she thought was obvious, “You were the favorite.” Plus, “Mom and Dad did not cross you. When you were away on a foreign exchange trip, all hell broke loose.”  I was flabbergasted. I thought I was just an oddball. I did not feel special, just overly criticized. But her revelation did explain the car I did not have to pay for (like my older brothers had to), the clothes I had, and my father’s habit of zeroing his binoculars in on me alone at every football game.

At first, kids appear to adapt well to the disparity in their household and often learn to game the system, flipping blatant favoritism back to their shared advantage. They’ll say to one another, “Why don’t you ask Mom if we can go to the mall because she never says no to you. ” I am evidence of that finding.

But at a deeper level, second-tier children may pay a price. “They tend to be sadder and have more self-esteem questions,” Conger says. “They feel like they’re not as worthy, and they’re trying to figure out why.” Some of them feel a deep guilt for causing problems or shame for being such an imposition; they can feel like “No one wants me” when they see how their sibling is wanted.

If this does not seem to register with you, you might try thinking again. In the workplace, employees often instinctively know which person to send into the lion’s den of the corner office with a risky proposal or a bit of bad news. What’s more, it is really no coincidence when you feel that old, adolescent envy after that same colleague emerges with the proposal approved and the boss’s affirmation. I think a lot of people have been cancelled in the past couple of years because they are the favorite and someone needs to be scapegoated to expiate leftover sibling rivalry.

It is also true when you experienced those old feelings you pulled up the knowledge you gained back in the family room — the smartest strategy is not to compete for approval but to strike a partnership with the favorite and spin the situation to benefit yourself as well. Such an idea did not come from nowhere — you learned by relating to your siblings. Maybe you learned it on the playground, in the extended familiy or in the neighborhood. But if you had a sibling, the pattern was probably part of the mimetic experience we all have with them. Would you like to take a few seconds to remember where you landed in the order of things in your family? Naming your place or your role might help you not to mindlessly repeat it in your present circumstances.

 The role modeling works for good or ill

I set myself apart from my family in many ways (or as my sister might say, “I was set apart”). For one thing, like I said, I became a Christian. I also did a lot of reading, unlike the rest, got educated and, unlike my father, I did not smoke.

Smoking is one of those things researchers have studied in relation to role modeling among siblings. Joseph Rodgers, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma, published a study of more than 9,500 young smokers. He found that while older brothers and sisters often introduce younger ones to the habit, the closer they are in age, the more likely the younger one is to resist. Apparently, their proximity in years has already made them too similar. One conspicuous way for a baby brother to set himself apart is to look at the older sibling’s smoking habits and then do the opposite. We might emulate a good trait, even idolize an attractive older sibling. Or we might differentiate from a negative trait or devalue an ill-behaved sibling. Either way, we learn.

You would think that siblings raised by the same parents in relatively stable enironments would be very similar. But my four children have all found their way to be distinct. They are all curious and read, they all make good rational arguments, they are all forthright, and they all share a similar moral compass. They all have a strong streak of faith and feel obliged to do good in the world. But the second did not follow the lead of the first and the last two who are twins can still conjur up their personal universe. The oldest and youngest vie to be the role model. The middle two tend to ignore them.

If you have/had older siblings what did you emulate? How did they influence? What did they instill in you? Celebrate it or finally let it go! If you have/had younger siblings, what did you do to them? How did their competition motivate you? Enjoy your role, or maybe apologize for it!

Having an other-gendered sibling makes a difference.

I spent an inordinate amount of time making designer clothes for baby dolls out of old socks on rainy days. My sister was available to me and I was often the only playmate available to her. Plus, we enjoyed a rather imaginative play-world. Such time spent made me a more approachable high schooler. My home was pretty dominated my testosterone, so being on my sister’s side gave me a different look at the other half of humanity.

Brothers and sisters can be fierce de-identifiers. In a study of adolescent boys and girls in central Pennsylvania in families with male and female siblings, the boys unsurprisingly scored higher in such traits as independence and competitiveness while girls did better in empathic characteristics like sensitivity and helpfulness. What was less expected is that when kids grow up with an opposite-sex sibling, such exposure doesn’t temper gender-linked traits but accentuates them. Both boys and girls hew closer still to gender stereotype and even seek friends who conform to those norms. “It’s known as niche picking,” says Kimberly Updegraff, a professor of family and human development at Arizona State University and the person who conducted the study. “By having a sibling who is one way, you strive to be different.”

As kids get older, the distance from the other gender tends to close. At that point, children with opposite-sex siblings have a relational advantage. William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, published a study in which he paired up male and female students who had both grown up with an opposite-sex sibling — and set them up for a chat. Then he questioned them about how the conversation went. In general, boys with older sisters or girls with older brothers were less fumbling at getting things going and kept the exchange flowing much more naturally. “The guys who had older sisters had more involving interactions and were liked significantly more by their new female acquaintances,” says Ickes. “Women with older brothers were more likely to strike up a conversation with the male stranger and to smile at him more than he smiled at her.”

How did your sister or brother impact how you see yourself and your gender? Do you see any evidence of how they prepared you for future relationships? Do you need to process or let go of any abuses you endured?

Singing for the folks at their 50th
The ties bind

I think my siblings feel an affinity, a tie that somewhat binds. I suspect if I needed something, they would want to help me. But as a foursome, we are not too bound. The older two have a rift going that has kept them from even speaking for many years. My sister is most in touch and I try to keep up. But none of them are likely to call me or visit. So I think we feel the bind but it does not have a lot of force. It is possible, when a family system has a habit of cutting people off, everyone learns that trait. My mother’s three sisters had one whose husband cut her off. On my father’s side there is a brother who cut himself off. My sibs may feel like going it alone is normal.

More typical than in my family, the powerful connection siblings form becomes even more important as the inevitable illnesses or and losses of late life lead us to lean on the people we’ve known the longest. It is typical for siblings who have drifted apart in their middle years to drift back together as they age. “The relationship is especially strong between sisters,” who are more likely to be predeceased by their spouses than brothers are, says Judy Dunn, a developmental psychologist at London’s Kings College. “When asked what contributes to the importance of the relationship now, they say it’s the shared early childhood experiences, which cast a long shadow for all of us.”

While sibling relationships, of all relationships, may have an “inevitability” to them, it is still true that all relationships take willing partners. Love is not just a concept, it is a lived experience. So even the closest ties can fray and the loosest ones can be re-tied. (Watch The Miracle Club on Netflix right now). Inactive or not, our life experiences with siblings have shaped us and the ongoing feelings of conection and loss, the lessons learned, the wounds yet to heal and the unique joys and triumphs experienced continue to have a force for good and ill. In an age which deludes people into thinking they can or must go it alone, it is important to note the impact of the siblings who travel with us in our deepest memories and feeling patterns. For a minute, maybe you should mourn the loss of the siblings you have lost, acknowledge the value of those you have, maybe let go of the pains, and contact your sibling(s) if it is safe to do so. Their existence mattered and matters. You matter to them, too, one way or another.