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.