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Spawn vs. Spawn

Your Guide to Sibling Rivalry


  • Hillary Harvey

It's a dust bunny with a tiny scrap of string on it, and our daughters are arguing for its property rights. Exasperated, we're also impressed with their ability to make anything into a fight. They prize this beloved dust bunny like it's a real bunny, or the last piece of bread on the table. As they each argue their case, my husband, Owen, repeats his two mantras: "Is it better to be right or to be kind?" and "There's no such thing as justice." In the end, I throw it out.

As parents, it's challenging to cohabit with children who conjure more love than seems possible, and who spend most days squabbling. And parents can be vindicated. In The Sibling Effect, Jeffrey Kluger proves, the feeling that siblings fight all the time is true! Researchers found that 3-to-7-year-olds average a quarrel every 17 minutes; in the 2-to-4-year-old group, it's every 9.5 minutes. "Small children have almost no control over their world, and what little they do have concerns their possessions." He feels it's important to know what's behind the brawl because it isn't often hostility. He and many experts promise that the arguing serves a purpose. Kluger told AARP, "The battles you fight in the playroom are very much dress rehearsals for the way you live your life later."

Kluger says we've deemphasized the sibling relationship in favor of the parent-child or the romantic, yet it's often the relationship most fraught with conflicting emotions. Nat Bennett sums up a younger brother's perspective in the anthology, Freud's Blind Spot. "What do you do if you are born too late to compete, if you love someone more than they can properly requite, if you realize the object of your worship is, in some fundamental way, a fraud?" In the same collection, Vestal McIntyre describes how siblings pluck and pull each other's heartstrings until they get a response.

The way Owen frames it, the sibling relationship is like a marriage in reverse, moving from intimate to acquaintance in its course. The intimacy is necessary, not chosen, and so a sense of loss is often inevitable. Owen knows a thing or two about siblings, having grown up with 10 of them. Upon hearing that, the first thing people ask is, where does Owen fall in the birth order? Because in understanding how to relate to someone with siblings, people innately know that birth order matters. (He's third born, by the way.) Our siblings are witness to our personal evolution, and evidence shows that our relationship with them shapes us, pivotally.

Frank Sulloway, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley in the Department of Psychology, takes a Darwinian perspective on siblings: that people evolve within the family ecosystem to maximize survival by differentiating themselves. "From a Darwinian point of view, siblings are a threat to survival," he writes. "Negative emotions, including jealousy, are natural responses to this threat." It seems unfathomable in this day and age that a child's survival would be competitively based, but Sulloway says competition spikes when siblings are close in age because demands on parental investment are usually more intense under such circumstances. The rule at Owen's house, when a new baby was born (usually one to three years since the last), was, everyone watched the usurped baby of the family (the one closest in age). "You never knew what that kid would do," Owen smiles.

"This competition is all about parental investment," Sulloway tells me. "That includes food, shelter, and warmth, but also emotional investment. If you have everything you want, that won't eliminate sibling competition because you still need love and affection. In an evolutionary world, kids are always competing for whatever else they can get."

Sulloway's most significant finding is the important role that birth order plays in personality development. Parents have already invested more in a firstborn, he explains, by the time the next arrives, and that can become routine. Spending much of their childhood being bigger, stronger, and smarter than their younger siblings, firstborns are also generally more confident and successful. In an attempt to safeguard this natural favoritism, firstborns align themselves with their parents' traditional thinking. Innately realizing that they are already at a slight disadvantage, laterborns feel free to take more risks. Generally unconventional, they're the ones stacking the living room furniture to make a diving board as the firstborn runs to get you.

These personality niches are something most parents see everyday: Whatever one kid wants or likes, the other is bound to despise it. Sulloway's book, 26 years in the making, titled Born to Rebel, details this trend throughout history. Eighteen years later, continuing his research with Internet data sets of half a million people, the research still holds up.

Loving Differently

Denyse Variano helps parents bring home this information. She's an RN and the family and consumer sciences issue leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County, which offers a seasonal menu of affordable parenting workshops to teachers, child-care providers, parents, and grandparents. The CCEs in Dutchess and Greene Counties offer something similar. "Parenting is the hardest job anyone will do, with the least amount of formal training," Variano says. Whether it's on raising healthy teens or discipline, sibling rivalry comes up in every course.

The overall message of the classes is that adults set the tone for the home environment. With multiple children, it's the little things we do that encourage sibling bonds or sibling rivalry. "No matter how many children you have, they all want all of your attention all of the time!" Variano laughs. So it's important to give them positive attention, noticing when they're playing together nicely. Racing against the clock to pick up toys rather than counting how many each child collects bolsters cooperation rather than competition. Blaming an older child during an argument "because they should know better" or placing unrewarded responsibility on the elder to care for the younger can foster poor relationships. Variano says kids might not be capable of working it out, so arguments are an opportunity to help them reflect on solutions and their choices. "It's just like teaching them to tell time," Variano says. "It takes time up front, but once they learn it, they have that skill forever."

Except for those situations where conflict is at an extreme and families need outside help, sibling competition is a normal, healthy part of growing up. Kids practice various aspects of human relations through their negotiations with their siblings. But when rivalry is carried into adulthood, it can be detrimental to families. Local author Amy Bronwen Zemser writes about a Memorial Day fight with her younger sister that was so epic, they came to blows. Hearing that, you'd never guess that they were in their 30s at the time. "Sometimes I wonder if it's sad for my parents to have two children who are so different, who argue frequently and don't have much of a relationship," she tells me. "It would upset me deeply if my children weren't friends into adulthood, if they couldn't enjoy or rely on one another. I try to think of strategies to preserve their close relationship, but I'm not certain if my parenting style can account for essential character differences."

Variano suggests parents set clear expectations for people's treatment in the house. Of course, setting the limit on physical violence, particularly if one child persists in being the victim, is important. But also understanding that teasing is a form of sibling rivalry, and it's most damaging when a parent joins in. "We have to be equally astute, as adults, about the emotional as well as the physical."

Parents work hard to show love to all their children, but there's almost always a perception of favoritism among siblings. A parent's own birth order and temperament may influence their compassion for certain of the children. In a way, identification equals favoritism. "A child with a sunny disposition, an easy child compared to a petulant one, or at certain times different children might feel more like you," Variano says. "If you have a strong feeling that you favor a child, you can never let them know, and you've got to make up for that. That's the adult work. And with some children, you have to look hard and long, but there's always something to appreciate."

When sibling rivalry rears its ugly head, it's usually about children seeking affirmation. Siblings innately define and differentiate themselves in relation to each other in order to find their niche in the family. Similarly, as the kids come along, they're born to parents who learn from their experience. "You don't have to give your children the message that you love them exactly the same," Variano says. "You can give them a sense of why each one is loved and how that makes them special in your eyes." Studies show that praise that is specific is best and comparison is most damaging. Parents can accept that we do love different people differently, and respond to the distinction that children want.

"In your own relationship with your siblings, any perspective you have is going to be one-sided," Owen says. "But the shared past defines the relationship more than any brief moments of fighting." Owen can't name a sibling he didn't combat at some point. With our kids, it removes his parental stress to know that their childhood bickering is likely a blip in the lifetime of their interaction.

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