Over the years we’ve written a lot about how parents influence their kids. However, because ninety-percent of us grow up in a household with at least one sibling, brothers and sisters’ impact on one another is equally as powerful.
When we’re young, our sibling relationships are both a proving ground and a source of comfort. As Jeffrey Kluger writes in his book, The Sibling Effect: What Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us, “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.” Sibling bonds also have a big impact on our ability to feel empathy. Researchers have found that the care and trust of an older sibling positively impacts a younger sibling’s ability to empathize. In fact, the phenomenon goes both ways—as long as one sibling is empathic the other one benefits.
We spend more time with our brothers and sisters than we do with our parents, friends, teachers, or even by ourselves. It’s with them that we learn how to argue and call a truce, how to communicate and negotiate. Remember, back in the day, when you and your siblings were left to your own devices to get along? I remember arguing things out with my older brother and younger sister and us learning how to stop a fight and come up with some rule that would avoid the same argument in the future—don’t touch my dollhouse unless you ask, or you can use my legos but you have to put them back.
Being siblings is also about competition. The root of sibling rivalry is about being rivals for Mom and Dad’s attention and love — vying for limited resources. Dr. Mark Feinberg, the lead investigator of Penn State University’s Siblings Are Special Project, says a good way to short circuit the competition is for parents to spend one-on-one time with each kid, as well time as a family. Feinberg believes that the one-on-one time increases feelings of support and lessens the need to compete for parental attention and approval. During time together as a family both parents can model cooperation and good relationships in front of their children.
No matter what, siblings are in it for the long haul. As Kluger says in his book, they are “the longest relationships we’ll ever have in our lives. Our parents leave us too soon, our spouses and our kids come along too late”. So even if a relationship with a brother or sister gets rocky somewhere along the way, mending it is important. While it’s true that a small percentage of them are too toxic to repair, eighty-five percent of sibling relationships are worth the effort. Being willing to talk about long-held grievances and sources of pain and being open to your siblings’ perspective strengthens (or can re-establish) a sibling bond. Becoming a team is particularly important when it comes time to take care of aging parents.
Poet Dylan Thomas summed it up well in A Child’s Christmas in Wales when he said: “I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”