The new science of siblings

October 23, 2013

In my recent home tour and interview over on Design Mom where I talk about my kids and my desire to raise children who love each other, a reader left me a comment suggesting I read this article from Time Magazine about the importance of siblings. I clicked over to the article and have since read it twice. I find it so fascinating, and it really rings true in my experience of growing up in a big family with my many siblings, and also with my experience of raising my own children. We are truly shaped and defined not only by our parents and our genetics, but in a large part by our siblings. The article reads:

From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to; how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them. Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys. Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we’ll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life.

Whenever I think about the importance of siblings and the invaluable lessons they learn from each other, I think about bath time in our family. I think about how my four kids have to cram into one bath tub, how they have to learn to share the space and take up their fair share (usually, they first discuss their placement in the bathtub – who’s turn it is to sit closest to the faucet, etc.). Then they discuss the bath toys and who gets to play with each toy. Then, when it comes time for them to rinse their hair, they all have to make room for each person to lie backwards and soak their heads – they all shift to one side to allow their siblings to rinse their hair. They pass the shampoo. They take turns with the bath toys. And then, of course, there’s the debate about who has to get out first, who gets the biggest towel, etc.  If those are not valuable life lessons, I don’t know what are!!

Anyway… this is, of course, my own experience with having four children, and I am very aware that not everyone chooses (or is able) to have more than one child, so their experiences might be different (maybe in that case, they have cousins or friends who shape them?!). I’m not arguing the case of having many children, but mostly just observing what I see and know in my own family, and what I know from the family I come from. I really do believe that my own children are very much shaped by one another, and in a way I think it takes a tiny bit of pressure of me as a mother. Maybe it is my way of justifying our own family size and dynamics?

Please share your thoughts! Do you think siblings play an important role in shaping who we become?

x Courtney


Comments (20)

Sophie Facer
October 23, 2013

Really interesting piece…I’m currently writing about the crticism I face having made the decision to just having one child…

…sympathetic looks often turn to simply confused when I’ve explained that no, there’s no medical reason for it – we simply don’t want any more children. True, ours was a bumpy road to parenthood, but that’s not behind our decision. Our son is our world, but people don’t seem to be able to comprehend that he is ‘enough’ for us. Our family feels complete.

When mums criticise me, it’s often implied that my boy will be spoilt, self centred and unquestionably downright lonely. I often wonder how they’d react if I asked them what they think of the findings of research into long term effects of a second baby on a child whose sense of self isn’t yet fully developed. But I keep schtum, even though I’m itching to start that debate with the next person who dares give me ‘that look’. Not because I disagree in any way with their choice to carry on making babies, but simply so they might get a snapshot of how it feels to be frowned upon for my decision not to.

The article you’ve posted I’m sure will start the ‘should we…’ convo with my husband this evening!

October 23, 2013

So true. For different reasons we’ve chosen to become parents to one child only and, more than once, got “that look”, associated to some sort of piety, of sorrow for the child…
Our kid, a 10year-old, is so much loved and has all our attention, but doesn’t seem to be a spoiled (or sad) child because of that. He has his best friends, his cousins, neighbors and play dates. He loves his school but just as much as he loves his bedroom, where he is able to have his moments of introspection, just for himself. He has a beautiful, richly balanced life without siblings. And that seems perfectly okay, really.

October 29, 2013

We too have decided to have one child and are really aghast on peoples opinions on this. The look of disappointment in their eyes when you tell them is heart wrenching and i am constantly reminding myself that this is mine and my husband’s decision and its right for ‘our’ family. I just wish that the one child stigma would stop.

October 23, 2013

Dear Courtney, thanks for sharing thoughts and this very interesting Time article. Although my boys are still very young (2,5 years and 9 months), I already start seeing the same dynamics you are observing with your kids. Also, it is so obvious that there is already a very special connection between the 2 of them, even though they are still very small. There is a very famous book about kids in Sweden by author Ana walgren. She says that the best present you can make to your child is to give him a brother or sister…

October 23, 2013

I definitely agree that siblings are one of them most important people in our lives! I’m not able to say how I was shaped by my siblings, but for sure my brother is my lifelong partner, not only childhood one. Sometimes we are closer, sometimes further from each other, but always in strong connection. And I guess when my brother will have his own children (I already have), we will become closer than ever before.
One of the biggest surprises for me when my second son was born was how both sons were important for each other from the first days of the younger one’s life. Being pregnant for the second time I was wondering how our love to the older son will change, how we will love the younger one but I didn’t think about relationship between them at all. And it really amazed me!
I believe having a big family is a really great gift for your children and I hope I’ll be able to give it to my children, too πŸ™‚

October 23, 2013

Hi Courtney,
Thank you for sharing your family life with us. What you’ve said certainly resonates with us and the relationship amongst our 3 kids.
My son and elder daughter are best friends and as such, love and get annoyed with each other in equal measure, but are inseparable and build each other up. Our youngest is only 11 months, but they are so sweet and loving to her, too.
As our son has Selective Mutism, his anxieties in situations outside our home make interacting with others so painful for him. When out, his sister holds his hand and continues to communicate with him and play alongside him, even as she knows he has grown silent and immobile. Her love for her brother saves him, as when we return home, he reports how much fun it was to be out.
My husband and I are so grateful that our kids have such a special bond and believe it will be lifelong. It is incredible to know that they will always have each other.

Kim O'Dowd
January 24, 2016

This is just beautiful, how blessed you are to have such a wonderful family. Thanks for sharing xxx

October 23, 2013

I’m not a mother but I’m a big sister and I must say a big yes to your question. My bro was born when I was a three and half year old, so I didn’t remember very well my life as a one child. My relationship with him has always been of love and hate, we used to fight a lot but we love each other like crazy and we share a lot of things. He had and he still has a very important role in my life and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him. I was his role model from day 1 cause I’m the big sis, but he has also taught me in so many ways… I love him more than anything. So in the case I become a mother I would like to have more than one child.

ash Jameson
October 23, 2013

As I sit here nursing my three week old in the middle of the night , feeling a little bleary eyed, this is so nice to hear. She is so blessed to have a sister sleeping soundly in the next room, a life long companion. When I’m feeling a little overwhelmed about having two children, I must remember these words. When my littlest is crying uncontrollably and I secretly make a pact with myself that this is the last child we will have, I must remember these words. Because these are mere phases that will pass, but a sibling is a life long gift. Thanks for sharing xx

mrs boo
October 23, 2013

Amen Ash. I think about that lifelong gift when I think of the morning sickness that seems to, for me, last much longer than usual. It will be worth it. A few…or even several months of illness now is a small price to pay for my children to have siblings.

October 23, 2013

good to read an article confirming what I see coming from a big family and now having three boys of my own. I see a big difference in my each child and I think having their brothers around full time is one of the biggest gifts I can give them as a mother. I would now love to read the article on how looking after sibling children affects me as a mother… πŸ™‚

October 23, 2013

Loved your thoughts, Courtney. Can you imagine the bond that my 5-year old twin boys have??? It’s amazing. They are fraternal boys with different personalities (just the same size). But the connection between them is something that even I cannot fully understand because it is much deeper than what I have ever experiences with my younger brother, whom I love very much.
I once read that we get to know our twins the moment that they enter the world. But the children, the twins, they have known each other for the previous 9 months already. Which is true…they do interact with each other in-utero, too…

Thanks for sharing…how about your thoughts on: sibling rivalries? do your children ever have fights over the silliest things? twins sure do πŸ™‚



October 23, 2013

I’d definitely say that my sister and I shaped each other in ways we probably don’t even appreciate to this day. My husband is the oldest of 5, and he’s often commented that he’s not nearly as close to any of his siblings as I am to my little sister. Though I feel like I was always the dominant personality, it’s hard to imagine just how different I’d be without her quiet and kooky influence. Though we’re fairly close in age, she taught me how to mother someone long before I ever had a child of my own.
What I’m really glad of is our mother who, when pressed about our closer-than-close relationship by our father, insisted, ‘don’t forget that when we’re both gone, all they’ll have is each other.’

October 24, 2013

Although I have two small boys of my own and I recognize that they have a special relationship – and I truly hope they become the best of friends growing up and in adulthood – I must say that my own experience with my brother is that we were not close at all growing up. And as adults we don’t have much contact and although I love him I can’t really connect with him and we are not close now either. When I think back of our childhood and growing up with him in the same household, I don’t have any fun and loving memories of us together. We led our separate ways. We had a very happy home life and my parents are/were kind and did everything for us, so I can’t really explain why we are not close. Maybe differences of character plays an important role too?

Emilie in Paris
October 24, 2013

Super interesting article! I love observing my girls and watching their relationship evolve.

October 24, 2013

My two-years-younger sister was a playmate when were little but then I hated her (I don’t know why) when we were teenagers. After college years, something clicked and we are very close now. We live in different states but call each other almost every day. We don’t even talk to our parents every day! Our mother is actually jealous of our relationship because she was never close to her own sister.

Kathleen Michelle
October 24, 2013

I love this article, and have been thinking a lot lately about the importance of siblings. I have one daughter who is 14 months old, and two stepsons who are much older — 11 and 16. The 16-year-old lives full-time with us in the U.S., and the 11-year-old lives full-time with his mother in France but visits us every two months or so. A complicated situation that leaves my husband and I struggling to create a sense of cohesiveness that we both feel is so important to all of these kids. I also want to have another baby soon — for many reasons, of course, but among them is my desire for my sweet daughter to have a sibling closer in age. I often think of my grandmother’s funeral three years ago — she was the third youngest of seven children, all of whom were very close, and the older four of whom had preceded her in death. I remember sitting in that tiny one-room country church, watching her sweet younger sister and her younger brother cry together, knowing that they were the only two left. The thought of it brings tears to my eyes now. I can’t help but see my daughter in that situation, being left by her brothers and growing old without them. Perhaps an overly morbid thought, and there’s no way to know how our lives will actually turn out — but I do agree that our relationships with our siblings are the longest of our lives, most likely, and I am so grateful for my brother and sister. I want my children to have that bond and that support. Thank you for this post! Valuable food for thought πŸ™‚

November 1, 2013

Since it may sound strange I totally get your thinking. My youngest brother died when he was 21 and I am really happy that I have another brother. That’s one of the reasons why I’d like to have more than two children… I even don’t want to think about such situation in my family but many other things may happen which could make one of siblings feel lonely (like moving abroad etc). The bigger family you have, the smaller chance is you’ll feel lonely…

January 18, 2015

Dear Courtney, I might be a little late to comment on this post, but I found it just a couple of days ago. First thank you for your wonderful words about your children and sharing these special moments. I told my family about what you wrote and we were all laughing about your bathtub discription! Wonderful πŸ™‚ !
I appreciate having siblings myself and I hope to have another child ( I have a daughter 9 months) so she has the privilege to experience the same wonderful bond between my brothers and me, that lasts till today. Since children are gifts and not every couple has the chance to have them, I would never judge someone to have only one child. But I believe there are many ways to help the child experience similar character forming moments with a cousin or a very close friend (that’s the back-up plan). Nevertheless would I love to see my daughter beeing a sister to someone and watch her grow with that purpose. Love from Germany, A.

January 27, 2015

[…] are so influenced by their birth order and relationships with their siblings. (Do you remember this post and the article in Time Magazine noting that children are more shaped by their siblings than by […]

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