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Siblings: Part 1

I have two brothers, and would characterize my relationship with both as good. My little brother and I don’t have a ton of common ground because I moved away when he was five (and I was fifteen), but I still feel close to him. Maybe only because he’s the nicest person. My older brother was a constant in a turbulent childhood, and I feel like I could take pretty much any problem to him. In general, I feel that they know and like me and I know and like them, and that’s what I’d shoot for with sibling relationships.

Now I am raising siblings. I yearn to see them feel about each other the way I feel about my brothers. In fact, it’s so important to me that I fear I will ruin their chances by being all obfuckingsessed about it.


I also fear that if things keep on the way they are now, my children’s lives will be comfortable and secure, and maybe it was only difficult circumstances that built my strong sibling bonds. (For example, a shared astonishment at the craziness of our mother.) Would the same us-es in different circumstances have grown up to be distant, selfish, hostile? Mr. Bunny and his sister had a comfortable childhood and hated each other growing up…Can siblings who don’t have to band together against common terrors still be close? Should I get a TIGER to make things a little more stressful for the babies?

As I watch my children squabble over toys, I find that I am excessively concerned about the role that my parenting plays in their relationship. WHAT AM I DOING AT THIS VERY MOMENT THAT IS RUINING THEIR CHANCES OF BEING CLOSE AND LOVING, I ask myself. I’ve become a bit paralyzed.

The good news is that with my many, many years of experience as a parent, I KNOW that I have a general trajectory with these things. Something will emerge as a Parenting Dilemma. I’ll worry about it for a while. Then I’ll do RESEARCH. Then I’ll feel better. (For anyone who hasn’t been through one of these cycles with me, I will NOT read parenting books. They undermine my confidence, contradict each other, represent fads that quickly replace each other [see they contradict each other], and the idea that someone is making money by undermining my confidence infuriates me. So it’s awesome if you have the best book ever about siblings. I’m glad you found it useful. But I’m NOT going to read it.)

Once the semester was over, I fired up my library databases and got to lookin’. I was hoping to find some research that answers the basic question: WHAT AM I DOING AT THIS VERY MOMENT THAT IS RUINING THEIR CHANCES OF BEING CLOSE AND LOVING? More specifically, I’ve been wondering whether intervening in conflicts makes them more likely to occur. I feel like there’s some free-floating parenting wisdom to the effect that more intervention leads to more conflict. But where does that come from? Is there any research behind it? When is such a strategy appropriate, if it is? How exactly does it work?

I won’t be providing any kind of comprehensive review of what I found, nor will I be citing all my sources like a proper researcher (though I will provide some references). If I put that much time into the project, well, I might as well turn it into a parenting book and make buckets of money by undermining your confidence. I’m all about pulling out some random things to share while glossing over the vast complexity of these interactive, multi-dimensional spaces.

My sense is that the findings fall into three categories: The NO SHIT category, the CAN’T DO SHIT ABOUT IT category, and the Oh! That’s actually rather comforting category.

Selections from the NO SHIT category

Physical punishment or excessive maternal control or intrusiveness is not good for sibling relationships, because the babies model what you show them. NO SHIT. Of course…what exactly counts as excessive maternal control and intrusiveness? But at least I’m on the right track with my whole not hitting my children plan.

“…several recent studies suggest that mothers’ encouragement of curiosity and openness (Brody, Stoneman, & MacKinnon, 1986), their reference to social rules and the feelings of others (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982), and their sensitivity in responding to their children’s needs (Bryant & Crockenberg, 1980) predict cooperative and friendly sibling relationships.” (Volling & Belsky, 1992, p. 1210). NO SHIT. It’s sort of like: Be this amazing, awesome, perfect mother and your kids will turn out great. Got it.

Selections from the CAN’T DO SHIT category:

A depressed mama is bad for sibling relationships. Happily for me, I’m not depressed. But if a mama is, it’s not like she can just NOT BE, so it’s kind of…shitty. On the side of encouraging, here’s one more reason why a depressed mama should ask for help. Which I hear is super easy to do when you’re depressed. Can I just stick in a quick shout-out to the women I know who have sought help for depression? You guys are rock stars. Also, my mother was depressed and I love my brothers.

In one study, being attentive and involved with a firstborn daughter was correlated with that daughter being hostile to her sibling. So…be inattentive to and uninvolved with your daughter until you know whether or not she will have a sibling? It’s a PLAN.

Temperament (which can be assessed in various ways, but we’re talking about general things like how frequently a kid gets upset, how shy she is, how active she is, etc.) plays a role. While parenting style and temperament can interact for good or ill, temperament is out of our control.

Biological sex and age gap have effects. The nice thing is that they tend to have both positive and negative effects, like increased competitiveness with a smaller age gap, but also increased closeness.

Selections from the Oh! That’s actually rather comforting category

A secure attachment relationship at one year predicted sibling affection and closeness. (Note: Attachment relationships are not the same as really anything to do with attachment parenting. I can get ranty and angry about this, so will just refer you to this article. My babies are maaaaad securely attached. We Strange Situation them on a daily basis just to be sure. So I’ve achieved something major already.

Having an organized household was correlated with positive sibling relationships. CHECK.

Having a good relationship with a co-parent as correlated with positive sibling relationships. FUCKS YEAH. Turns out all that energy I put into my marriage was good for something. (Though I’d also like to note that there’s a study showing no differences between single mother households and two-parent families. It’s not that you need a co-parent, it’s that if you have one, you are constantly modeling how to have a relationship with another person…so you’d better get along.

Treating your kids exactly the same all the time is not necessary. The trick is to get your children to think differential treatment makes sense. In which case it doesn’t negatively affect their relationship.

So what are my conclusions so far?

There’s a lot to be proud of. Some of the things I’m doing well I can only do well because my life is relatively low-stress and because I am fortunate in various ways. But I can still be proud. Some things are beyond my control. Some things I could perhaps work on.

But what about the more specific question? What should I do about the SQUABBLING? This will be the focus of Part 2.

References: Of the things I read, these two provide the best global, contemporary picture and starting point for following up with other sources.

Pike, A., Kretschmer, T., Dunn, J. F.. (2009). Siblings—friends or foes? The Psychologist,  22(6), 494-496.

Volling, B. L., & Belsky, J. (1992). The contribution of mother-child and father-child relationships to the quality of sibling interaction: A longitudinal study.  Child Development, 63(5), 1209-1222.*

*Contains the following gem from a description of how shared positive affect was coded: “…reflecting very intense affectionate exchanges and/or enthusiasm between the siblings (e.g., high-pitched excitement during joint play).” Oh yeah. Loves me some high-pitched excitement during joint play. I have to say, reading about that makes me want to go home to my children.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. German?!?!? Your daughter is so absorbed by a GERMAN conversation guide?! Well, duck me. What is the youngest man of the house reading? Short intro to Nietzsche’s How to Drive People Off the Wide Web Bezerk with a Book? Bunny, I have just one word for that: Wahnsinn, liebling, WAHNsinn.

    The siblings I raise love each other dearly until they poke each other’s eye, or push the other to the ground. Moment when George promptly sends the baby into the corner for timeout, and Stevie start pulling his brother hair. So far, Stevie seems to win the arguments. Having almost the same weight helps, apparently. They have also started working as a team, for example G opens the bathroom door, S gets the play pans and pots and together they have the jolliest of time turning the tap on and pouring water everyfuckingwhere, especially in boots and drawers full with hats and scarves (it was the bathroom next to the entry hall). This scares me more than the fighting.

    December 18, 2013
  2. Interesting! I enjoyed reading what you found! All I can offer is that my sisters and I had no trauma to bond over (our parents are remarkably normal) and we are super close! We are 4.5 years apart, each, went to different high schools (on purpose) and have all different interests. But once we started going away to college we got very close and have remained so for our young adult lives!

    December 18, 2013
  3. Aw bunny, you are so sweet. And well-researched! And I’m so glad you are feeling proud after a bit of reading.
    I can only speak from my own experiences (as a kid), but I’d say don’t worry about the lack of tigers. We grew up quite sheltered, I’d say, and we still all get along pretty well – in fact, I was texting with one of my brothers about brunch or lunch tomorrow while reading your post. Also, some wild animals will find their way without invitation. We moved several times – I’m not sure it has brought us closer, but who knows. It certainly “disturbs” any sort of routine and friendships (remember, this was before email or texting) a school-aged kid has. And then my mom got cancer… and while this did bring us closer together, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. But, as you said about depression, as if one had a choice.
    In any case, they are adorable, your little ones.

    December 18, 2013
  4. Rosalind #

    I’m the oldest and was super close with my brother, 14 months my junior, until I was 14 and he was 13. Because I was into teen-girl stuff and he was an immature boy, I then became closer to my sister, 4 years my junior. I also have a brother 8 years my junior. Growing up, I barely interacted with my youngest siblings. I thought they were annoying and boring. I chalk my behavior up to not really being a motherly child; didn’t have dolls or the time of day for younger children. I feel guilty about that now.

    BUT, now that we’re all grown up, I get along swimmingly with my sister and youngest brother. The three of us are close. The 14-months-younger brother developed a mental illness in his teen years and our relationship has been crappy for the past ten years, but I’m attending therapy with him to give him moral support, and have my fingers crossed for a diagnosis. So, if any of the above helps . . .?

    December 19, 2013
  5. Rosalind #

    I should note that we grew up in a two-parent household. My mom was great. My dad was occasionally physically and emotionally absent, but was always loving and did his best.

    December 19, 2013
  6. Well, of course you should get a tiger.

    And I would buy any parenting book by you.

    December 19, 2013
  7. Nicky #

    I have two boys, 2.25 yrs apart, currently ages 6 and 4. I emphasize being kind to one another and talking to each other, then I stay out of their way. “Ask your brother if he feels like being tickled. Otherwise, hands to self!” “I don’t care if he says it’s ok, we do not hit each other.” They seem to like each other pretty well, tonight they built a blanket fort and played nicely for 30 minutes. There are always squabbles, which at their age they generally work out for themselves. If not, I separate them, which they dislike. Oh, we also have a general rule of “If you feel like being irritating, go do it alone in your room.” It applies to noises, loud toys, almost anything really. Anyone being bugged can ask the other person to please stop, and then invoke the rule. Occasionally I’m applied to for consequences (no TV tomorrow!), but not too often.

    Growing up, I had a relatively stress-free household. My brother is 1.5 yrs older than me, and we have always been close. He called me last week asking for relationship advice. My husband is 2.25 yrs older than his sister and they just never clicked. They’re perfectly civil, but are very different people. He says they never had anything in common, and she wouldn’t ever do anything fun with him. His dad is a challenging person, and there were many shouting rages.

    Your kids are pretty little to work out their own problems. They’re going to fight over stuff, and randomly hurt each other. They’ll learn empathy eventually. You probably don’t need to worry about their relationship. When they’re rather older (10-12) they’ll go through a period of disliking each other. My mother reminded us, “Your sibling will be around for the rest of your life, you may as well get along.”

    December 19, 2013
  8. Who knows if Gwen will ever have a sibling, but some of this is useful advice anyway — after all, she will have other children she needs to learn to interact properly in her life. And I totally hear you on wanting to read Research, rather than pay someone to undermine you.

    I LOVE the picture.

    December 19, 2013
  9. Surely that giant nursery snake must count as at least 1/4 Tiger Power? (Tiger Power is like horsepower, only for anxiety.)

    Thank you for doing all this work for me. I am terrified I am going to fuck up the Sibling Thing, as neither Sugar nor I has any, and are therefore the selfish, socially-inept geniuses only children are reputed to be. I have determined that I have a life-threatening allergy to parenting books, and my mother, whose help I had counted on in this, is no longer available for advice. (She was the eldest of 8, 7 of whom get along very well. The odd one out Has It Coming, is all I can say, but even she showed up for the funeral.)

    December 19, 2013
  10. Love this, because it’s something I worry a lot about myself. My brother and I played pretty closely together growing up, though these days while we’ll always be there for each other, and can call on each for favours anytime, we have enough personality/philosophy conflicts that I’m not sure I’d describe us as ‘close’ on a personal level. And bizarrely, I can’t bear the thought that my kids might one day feel that way about each other even though it doesn’t bother me at all that that’s the relationship my brother and I have.

    I also feel that the “That’s actually rather comforting’ category was well-named. Thanks for posting those findings!

    For what it’s worth regarding the upcoming squabbling part (and I’m looking forward to reading your conclusions on that), the road I’m taking is to intervene as little as possible with the children–if they’re not killing each other, or breaking things, then let them sort it out for themselves. I don’t always remember to do this, mind, because the kneejerk reaction is to wade in there and try to establish some peace for my own sanity.

    I’ve been doing this for almost two years, I suppose now, and preliminary results are satisfactory. If one comes and tattles to me that their sibling hurt them, I can say: “Talk to them about it, not me,” and they’ll do it. Most often with a bellowed “Say sorry!” but it’s usually enough. I do try and feed them less confrontational sentences when I can… so instead of “Share!” they should say “When can I have a turn?” I’m always a little dithery about the line between intervening and prompting.

    That’s just conflict resolution though. They love to play together now–it’s something that’s really taken off this year, but I still worry about how they’ll react to each other as they get older.

    NB It’s around the age of three that children start looking to other children instead of adults for friendships, so I’m not sure how much it’s worth stressing over before then. I feel like all you need to do right now is establish the pattern of them being together.

    December 19, 2013
  11. Okay this is some rather frightening (for me) information on shit that worries me daily. At least I know I can blame my Mom for not getting along with my younger sister very well 😉 It is so important to me that my boys are tight. I mean they are going to have to share a lot of things in life and I don’t want them to hate each other. It worries me. I’m glad that you are doing the research on this and I can reap the benefits!! Thank you.

    My boys fight and argue. A lot. Well, mostly older boy hoards his trains and doesn’t let younger boy near them since he’s a bulldozer and will ruin the track layout. Younger boy loves and adores older boy. Mom is depressed and co-parent relationship not the best. Working on both though so step in the right direction? And I’m all good in the “no shit” category so I guess it’s not all bad right?

    December 19, 2013
  12. Nicky #

    Steph: I also let my older boy have some space and toys that are off-limits to his younger brother. My youngest takes apart every Lego thing ever, so he really isn’t allowed to play with his brother’s creations.

    December 20, 2013
  13. SRB #

    Weirdly, HGB has a German vocabulary picture book that he is OBSESSED with. ANYWAY.

    I worry about this a lot, especially the effects of Depressed Mother and Co-Parenting = Yelling At Each Other Always thing that is currently happening. I take solace in the fact that HGB is in love with MJB, and MJB is all whatevs about most things. I also sadly have no adult sibling relationships to draw from, other than my husband and his sister which you know ALL ABOUT and is the worst. So…yeah. Also, they are both boys and I have no idea what boys even think about, or think about other people and then panic sets in and I just keep writing and, and, and, and…

    HGB is just starting to lose his shit when MJB comes near him, or touches something he is working with. I am trying *really* hard to impart that their is no “mine” in our Den of Communism, but rather just toys that exist. You can either play together, or we put this away. He always chooses “play together” in the form of “tolerate brother’s proximity slightly longer” but, eh, we’re working on it. MJB doesn’t give a fuck yet, so, who knows?

    Also, I am jealous of Bun Bun’s hair, which is totally normal of an adult, yes?

    December 21, 2013
  14. Love me some phrasebook-loving babies. The kid is wild for ours as well. ‘Where’s my Arabic book?’

    I am about 2.5 years older than my brother, and while we got along fabulously as little kids, things got less great as we got older and it all turned to shit around puberty. (The era where he pissed on my bed was pretty grim…) Now, we oscillate. You’ve read some of that. He has real issues, compounded by the borderline personality thing. I try not to worry about him too much, for the sake of my own sanity.

    I don’t know that anything our parents did could have changed the dynamics of our relationship all that much. I think they made a lot of mistakes with him, but they were doing what they thought was right. Undiagnosed mental illness would throw a spanner in any works.

    I think – as usual – you’re way ahead of the game just by being conscious of the stuff you’re researching. Makes me want to look up the academic story re: singletons vs siblings. Should we stop trying for #2 and raise an only child? Science will tell me!

    December 21, 2013
  15. I feel more confident in your findings because you can reference specific professional journals…..but also you are a nerdy-mc-nerderson, hahaha. Will your squabbling research bring to light and aim to solve sibling attempts on each other’s lives? I would love to hear excerpts on that subject.

    December 23, 2013
  16. A sibling seemed like this fantasy I harboured all my childhood. I wanted one, but my parents were unwilling to put out and then they split up. I remember being so incredibly puzzled at all my friends who fought with their sibs or who outright hated them. “There’s another person more or less your own age inside your house” I used to think “what the fuck is your problem?” (except that thought was in French, and I didn’t use a swear word because my mother prohibited swearing and I was afraid of her, so I didn’t even swear in my private thoughts). All that to say I have absolutely no personal wisdom on the subject, but most admire how intentional you are with this parenting dilemma (as you are with all your parenting dilemmas).

    I would think that the involved and attentive to first born daughter study is not longitudinal, or fairly short term. I don’t really trust that finding, but maybe it’s because I can’t really explain the sex difference to myself.

    And how much can I thank you for re-iterating that attachment and attachment parenting are NOT the same thing at all. Would 100 000 times thank you be enough? Can I pay you money? The world needs this message, Bunny. Keep spreading it.

    I am looking forward to part 2, and curious about it. How do you stop squabbling for objects in two tiny humans who cannot yet consider that others have thoughts, feelings, desires of their own? (or if they can, it is fleeting). This is where I think a tiger WOULD be useful. As a distraction when they both want the same object.

    December 23, 2013
  17. Bunny, you make me think! That’s good, isn’t it?

    Very interesting. I am now viewing the Really Quite Bonkers Behaviour of my father as something that created a bond between me and my brother. On the other hand, the Also Bonkers and Let’s Not Be Like THAT Whatever Else relationship he and my mother had had a much less positive effect on both of us. So, yes. You are on to something, here.

    Thank you. I think you’re brilliant, per usual.

    December 31, 2013

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