The power of siblings
How do some siblings end up like Orville and Wilbur while others skew more Cain and Abel? The answer, surprisingly, may be each other. We used to think kids’ personalities were shaped by parents, peers and the genetics they arrived with. All that is true, but researchers are finding that siblings have a lot more to do with it than anyone ever thought.
One of the reasons why brothers and sisters have so much influence on us is that they’re just ... there. That long-term forced togetherness means a sibling shapes how we see the world and behave in it. They’re a consistent force whittling away at our psyches – much the way a sibling who keeps inching their hand exactly to, but not technically across, the imaginary dividing line in the car’s back seat whittles away at our patience.
A sibling gives us a confidant, another team member in the battle of kids vs. parents, and the security of a companion who knows you wet the bed until age 10 but thinks you’re OK anyway. Siblings aren’t just good for us when we’re kids – having contact with siblings is a predictor of life satisfaction among elderly people, too, according to a Swedish study.
Siblings give us someone who understands family dynamics and shares childhood memories, says Nancy Segal, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton and director of the Twin Studies Center.
Learning habits, good and bad
Siblings help teach us how to get along in the world.
“Siblings can be a positive influence by teaching the younger ones how to get a snack on their own after school and things like that, but siblings can also be the ones who take you out behind the garage and give you your first beer,” says Katherine Conger, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at UC Davis.
An older sibling’s habits have a big influence on younger siblings’ habits, even more so than parental habits. When one sibling is a smoker, the other is 25 percent more likely to smoke, and a sibling is 36 percent more likely to drink if their brother or sister does, according to research from Richard Rende, Ph.D., of the Brown Centers for Behavioral and Preventative Medicine in Providence, R.I.
Younger sisters are five times more likely to get pregnant as a teen if their older sister did, according to research from Patricia East, Ph.D., of UC San Diego.
Siblings not only teach you bad habits and important snack-getting skills, but also how to navigate social situations. If you’re a girl looking to understand the mysteries of boys, you look to your brother, and vice versa.
“Brothers and sisters can be really important sources of advice, especially when you go into adolescence,” Conger says. “Adolescents are much more likely to talk over dating issues with siblings as opposed to their parents.”
But the most important way siblings shape us is the way they constantly force negotiation. They’re not just hogging the bathroom, getting to sit in the front seat and taking the best cookie; they’re teaching us how to negotiate.
“If you live with somebody 24/7, you’re going to have conflicts,” Conger says. “If you learn how to resolve those conflicts, then that spills over to the rest of your life. You learn how to get along with kids at school because you’ve already managed to do that with your brother or sister at home.”
Applying this notion to my own life, it was hard to see how long hours spent fighting with my two jerky little brothers in the back seat of the car constituted “negotiation.” I mean, on more than one occasion, there was biting involved. However, it must have worked some sort of sibling voodoo magic on us because as adults we all like each other well enough. And I haven’t solved a problem by biting in ages.
My own teen daughters, by contrast, are like freakish Stepford Children who rarely disagree. They walk to school together, quiz each other on homework and even make macaroni and cheese for each other. (And to my knowledge, they don’t even secretly spit in it.) I asked my girls why they get along so well, hoping they would cite several genius parenting techniques they’d noticed, but they just shrugged and walked away before I got more asky.
What about only children?
If you have an only child, don’t worry. Singletons manage to pick up these skills without a brother or sister shoving these lessons in their face. Only children are indistinguishable from other kids in every personality measure, and score higher in achievement, intelligence and self-esteem, according to studies by Toni Falbo, Ph.D., from the University of Texas in Austin.
“Only children aren’t typecast against their siblings, so they can be the smart one, the pretty one AND the funny one,” says Wendy Thomas Russell, parent of fifth-grader Maxine and Long Beach-based author and online parenting columnist for PBS NewsHour. “But the best part of onlydom is that I can give my daughter my undivided attention when she’s having a hard time and really needs me to be there for her. I have the reserves to be patient and truly empathetic because I haven’t been chasing a toddler around all day.”
In perhaps highly related news, parents of singletons tend to be happier than parents with more kids, according to Hans-Peter Kohler, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania.
Advice for happy siblings
But if your brood is bigger than one, your parenting methods can play a big role in facilitating good relationships among sibs. Here are some ideas:
Treating kids differently can be OK. “The big issue with favoritism is whether or not the kids see it as fair,” Conger says. “Are the parents treating a sibling differently for logical reasons?” For example, if a child gets extra time with mom working on math because they’re struggling, that seems fair (also, nothing to be too jealous of, really.)
“It becomes an issue when parents consistently favor one kid – if they always get the best room or get to have the window seat in the car when they go on a trip. Kids understand differential treatment, but if it is not fair treatment, they object.”
If the parents spin it right, kids will understand when a sibling needs special attention. For Jaqueline Moreno, having a younger sister with autism helped shape her life.
“Had I not been Jessica’s sister, I probably would have been a spoiled brat,” Moreno says. “I don’t think I would have understood what it meant to face adversity and overcome it. It’s made me appreciate the value of compassion and empathy.”
Moreno, now vice president of the California Sibling Leadership Network, a networking and advocacy group for siblings and their siblings with disabilities, and author of “Pieces: My Sister, Her Autism and Me,” says her parents’ dedication to her sister inspired her own attitude.
“From the moment she was diagnosed, they faced every challenge head on. When we were little, my parents told us, ‘Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution.’ That could be anything from as little as getting your own cup of water to advocating in Sacramento for changes.”
Help them fight, to a point. “A parent’s first reaction is often to separate the kids during conflict, but research has shown that’s pretty ineffective,” Conger says. “Most effective is teaching your children how to negotiate with one another. Talk about what the conflict is and come up with creative solutions. Parents can help manage the conflicts when they’re little, but the ultimate goal is for the kids to learn how to manage their own conflicts.”
Rochelle Veturis gets along so well with her sister Chelsey that together they run Sister Act Media, a public relations and new media strategies company in Lake Forest, and often collaborate with a third sister, Haley, the social media director at Saddleback Church.
“When we were younger and got in a tiff with each other, my dad made sure that we didn’t stew on it too long,” Veturis says. “At the time I thought he was crazy, but no matter who the offender was, he would have us both ask forgiveness and kiss and make up. Inevitably, we would be mad through the apology but when we had to hug, everyone would start giggling. I think that really has played out in our adult lives. It’s nice to know how to be quick forgivers and just move on no matter what.”
Show them how to cooperate. “Starting at a fairly early age, parents can promote cooperation and collaboration between siblings instead of competition,” Conger says. “If you have a younger son who is trying to figure out how to do something and an older son who knows how to do it, you can suggest things like, ‘Why don’t you go talk to Tim, I think he has figured out how to do this.’ Encouraging them to cooperate on tasks can go a long way in helping kids develop relationships with each other.”
Keri Bullock of Trabuco Canyon encourages good relationships among her three boys – Jacob, 8; Zach, 5; and Liam, 2 – by encouraging understanding and cooperation.
“The two younger boys really look up to the oldest, so we talk to him about how he can include them in things,” Bullock says. “Each child has different needs, so understanding that, for example, Jacob sometimes needs alone time, meanwhile Zachary never wants to be alone. We can figure out how to prevent situations that might cause stress. We can try saying something like, “Liam, come play with Mommy and Zach. Jacob is going to read in his room for a little while.’ ”
Have a special relationship with each kid. Emphasizing each child’s strengths and weaknesses and allowing children to follow their talents are key to fostering good sibling relationships, Segal says. If only one kid likes golfing, a parent needs to get out there on the course every once in a while to show support.
“One of the things that’s important is acknowledging that each child is a unique, interesting person on their own,” Conger says. “Make sure they each have some alone time with mom or dad instead of always being part of the sibling posse.”
Instill a sense of family pride. Emphasizing family loyalty is another key to fostering strong sibling bonds, Segal says. AG Kawamura, who runs Orange County Produce with his brother Matthew, says, “Our parents had high expectations that we would always work hard, whether it was together or apart.”
The brothers have made family unity an integral part of their business, which now includes third- and fourth-generation family members.
“The privilege of being in a family business is that there’s a sense of pride in working toward a future with family members. We have a lot of multiple generations within our company because we believe in that,” Kawamura said.
Avoid comparisons. You know enough to avoid comparing your kids, but it’s good to try to mitigate other peoples’ comparisons too. It’s tricky, since that starts pretty much the second kid No. 2 is born.
“If someone approaches the baby and strikes up a conversation about how adorable the baby is, parents can respond with, ‘Thank you. And she’s lucky to have such a helpful big sister too!’ This specific praise serves a twofold purpose. It gives attention to the older sibling and reinforces their place in line with the family’s values,” says Misa Butsuhara, a director and family therapist at the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California in Newport Beach.
And seriously, don’t play favorites. “We’re discovering that clear favoritism still causes problems in adulthood, even when the ‘kids’ are in their 50s and 60s,” Conger says.
“It can lead to hard feelings between adult siblings at a time when they should be trying to cooperate with each other. They’re spending less time together and they’re not pulling together as a family unit.”
Equal and balanced parenting has worked for the Kawamura brothers, who’ve been working together peacefully since about 1981. And AG just turned 60, so it seems like it’s going to stick.
“I think our parents were very focused on being very even-handed and very fair for all of the kids,” says Kawamura, who cannot come up with even one disadvantage of working with his brother. It’s a similar situation with the Veturis sisters, who happily spend hours on social media together, tagging each other and retweeting each other’s posts.
“My parents were very good at never playing favorites with the three of us,” Rochelle Veturis says. “There’s always been a very level playing field. Whatever they do for one, they do for the other two, even now as adults.”
The most important lessons of raising siblings
All the other stuff – the particular gender lineup, birth order or the age gaps between kids – doesn’t seem to matter as much as following those basic tenets, both Conger and Segal say. And there’s also no consensus on the ideal age gap for spacing kids, though Conger recommends waiting at least 18 months for the mother’s body to be fully ready to support a healthy pregnancy.
And yes, a firstborn may well be more responsible/bossier, while a younger one may be more charming/sneaky, but that can also be due to parental expectations or “sibling de-identification,” the tendency of siblings to pursue different interests from their siblings to avoid competition and comparison.
In short, don’t pick a favorite, let ’em fight, and remember it’s never going to be perfect. There’s always more “negotiating” to be done.
“It’s really funny how we can be so professional but just within a minute we’re back into sibling mode,” Veturis says. “It’s life.”
“Ultimately, they are siblings and they are going to argue, they are going to bicker, they are going to drive each other crazy sometimes,” Bullock says. “At the end of the day, they will have a very special bond.”