Nurture Shock: Chapter 6

{This is the sixth in a series. Click here to read more.}

The Sibling Effect

When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite shows was The Brady Bunch. I watched it so often I could tell which episode it was just from the opening scene. So many classics – Jan feels inferior because her teachers are always comparing her to her older sister (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”); Peter breaks Carol’s favorite vase (“Mom always said, ‘Don’t play ball in the house'”), and his siblings each confess so he won’t be grounded; Peter throws a football, smacking Marcia in the face and causing her nose to swell – right before her dream date with hunky Doug Simpson; Jan complains about not having any privacy or space and says she wants to be an only child – so her siblings accommodate her by ignoring her completely.

The show aired for five seasons, never achieving high ratings (it didn’t appear in the top 25 once during its run in primetime) but, through the power of reruns and syndication, it is one of the best known (and oft-parodied) shows about families from the ’70s. What made it so iconic (besides the plethora of polyester, Carol’s hairdos, and an appearance by Davy Jones)?  The show depicted siblings doing what they do best: playing, arguing, and making up. This often involved some ingenious compromise, like the time the boys and girls can’t decide what to get with their 94 trading stamps (the boys want a rowboat, the girls a sewing machine), so they compete at building a house of cards, and when the girls win, they trade the stamps in for a portable TV for all to enjoy!

The Bradys embodied an ideal of siblinghood: despite countless misunderstandings, annoying little sisters who tattle, and bell-bottom leisure suits with fringe, siblings always care and are always there when you need them. So how does this ideal hold up in real life?

New research about how siblings interact shows that two of the major theories about brothers and sisters from the last century are wrong: siblings don’t fight because they are vying for their parents’ attention, and friendship relationships affect sibling relationships, not the other way around.

The authors open the chapter with research about only children, a popular area of focus in child psychology since G. Stanley Hall wrote in 1898 that “being an only child is a disease in itself.” Only children are naturally the center of their parents’ world, and many child behavior specialists caution parents about not spoiling their only child, but the most common question about only children is: since they don’t have siblings, do they know how to get along with others?

It seems reasonable to think that children who grow up in a family with one or more siblings would do a better job of working and playing well with others in comparison to a child without siblings. All those interactions with a built-in playmate are bound to develop social skills that only children don’t possess, right? Wrong again!

Of the many things that generate stress for parents, sibling fighting (or what many term “sibling rivalry”, which really isn’t accurate) is high on the list. Mom walks by the playroom and observes her boy and girl happily building a fort together one moment only to hear ear-piercing screams the next. And these interactions – from sweet, cooperative play to mere tolerance or indifference to outright rage occur daily in most houses with young children.
Long-term studies reveal that the quality of a sibling relationship is established early on and remains stable throughout the children’s lives. Many people recall fighting with siblings when they were young but realize that their relationship as adults remains intact. This is because the ratio of positive to negative interactions balances out over a lifetime, and the times spent chasing fireflies, running through the sprinkler, and eating ice cream on a lazy summer night override  memories of the time a little sister “accidentally” gave her older sister’s favorite Barbie a chic new haircut or when  an older brother locked a little brother out of the bedroom to keep him away from the Legos.
According to researchers, conflict between siblings is actually a good thing, a sign that they are connected with each other. It is when siblings are indifferent to each other or don’t know how to engage each other in mutually satisfying play that the relationships break down, making it difficult for siblings to relate to each other as adults.
Contrary to popular opinion, siblings do not fight because over parental affection. Most parents give children what they need in fair, if not always equal, measure, and children are satisfied with what they receive. No, the reason siblings fight is as old as Jacob and the Man in Black: each wants what the other has. According to the authors, 80% of older children and 75% of younger children polled about what caused their fights said that sharing physical possessions – or claiming them as their own – generated the most conflict. Researchers surmised that “siblings have their own repertoire of conflict issues separate from their parents” and although parental attention may be a factor, children do not recognize it or articulate it as an issue.
Some psychologists, including Laurie Kramer, have focused their research not on teaching children how to manage conflict but how to develop positive social relationships with their siblings. In her program, “More Fun with Brothers and Sisters” Kramer engages sibling pairs in art projects, songs, dancing, and role-playing. She teaches them skills like Stop, Think, and Talk to help them find activities they both want to do, prevent one child from being too bossy, and learn how to decline politely if they’re not interested in a suggested activity. After viewing videotapes of the siblings in the program before and after the six hour-long sessions, Kramer determined that “fewer fights are the consequence of teaching the children the proactive skills of initiating play on terms they can both enjoy. It’s conflict prevention, not resolution.”
Kramer also found in her research that one of the best predictors of how well two siblings will get along occurs prior to the birth of the younger child: the quality of the older child’s relationship with his or her best friend. She studied young children from families who were expecting another child. Kramer observed them playing one-on-one with their best friends, recording the types of interactions they had. She found that children who could play in a reciprocal, mutual style with their best friend were the ones who had good rapport with their younger siblings years later. The prevailing wisdom says that children learn how to interact with others through their interactions with their siblings; it’s the other way around – they train on their friends and then apply their skills to their relationships with their siblings.
When children engage in fantasy play, they must be committed to each other, to listen, to pay attention, and to create a scenario that allows both their mental images to come alive. As the authors put it, “[if] one kid just announced the beginning of a ninja battle, but the other wants to be a cowboy, they have to figure out how to still ride off into the sunset together.”

This takes a willingness to concede part of one’s vision in order to prolong a mutually fulfilling endeavor, and if this habit isn’t instilled in a child by the time a younger sibling comes along, there is little incentive to develop it. After all, the sibling will still be there in the morning. Bronson and Merryman write, “Siblings are prisoners, genetically sentenced to live together, with no time off for good behavior. There is simply no motivation to change.”

I always wanted a family like the Bradys. I wanted to be one of six siblings – it seemed so much more interesting. (I guess I saw myself as Marcia, being the oldest, but I would have killed for Cindy’s ringlets!) Their congenial interactions, sisterly-and brotherly-bonding adventures, and  neatly resolved conflicts appealed to me.

Looking back on my early childhood, as the only grandchild on both sides of the family, I was surrounded by adults who adored me. I remember having friends in the neighborhood – most of them were younger than I – but I don’t really remember having a best friend before my sister, S, was born when I was 3 1/2. Later friendships were tumultuous (I think I might have been a little too bossy and maybe a teeny bit too stubborn), and I often preferred to play alone: reading, setting up my dollhouse, talking to my stuffed animals (and, I have to admit, myself), dressing up and acting in front of the mirror in my dressing room – just a lot of solitary play.

Poor S: she just wanted her big sister to play with her, ride big wheels with her, and let her sleep in her bed. I wish I could do it all over again.

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