The Sibling Effect Ⅲ- Woodmam

It turns out that Shakespeare was right, and Freud was wrong. For almost a century, Freud’s argument—that from birth, siblings were locked in an eternal struggle for their parents’ affection—held huge influence over scholars and parents alike. But Freud’s theory turns out to be incomplete. Sibling rivalry may be less an Oedipal tale of parental love, and more King Lear.

A team of leading British and American scholars asked 108 sibling pairs in Colorado exactly what they fought about. Parental affection was ranked dead last. Just 9% of the kids said it was to blame for the arguments or competition.

The most common reason the kids were fighting was the same one that was the ruin of Regan and Goneril: sharing the castle’s toys. Almost 80% of the older children, and 75% of the younger kids, all said sharing physical possessions—or claiming them as their own—caused the most fights.

Nothing else came close. Although 39% of the younger kids did complain that their fights were about… fights. They claimed, basically, that they started fights to stop their older siblings from hitting them.

Mindful of the Freudian paradigm, the scholars tempered their findings, wondering if the children were too young to understand the depths of the family psychodrama they were starring in. But these brothers and sisters weren’t toddlers. The younger kids were in elementary school, and some of the older kids were already teenagers. The scholars felt that the psychological community needed to recognize that “siblings have their own repertoire of conflict issues separate from their parents.” The struggle to win a greater share of parental love may be a factor, they wrote, but kids in mid-childhood don’t think about it, recognize it, or articulate it.

Laurie Kramer also came to this same conclusion. She reviewed 47 popular parenting manuals, analyzing how much of their advice regarding sibling relationships was rooted in empirical research, versus how much was just unproven theory. Kramer found that every single parenting manual recited the psychodynamic paradigm, that sibling resentment stems from a loss of parental attention when the younger child is born. Kramer noted that there’s certainly research making this point. For instance, one recent study showed that an older sibling’s jealousy when the younger is 16 months old predicts what kind of relationship they’ll have a couple years later. But Kramer feels this fixation on competition for parental love masks and distracts from a more important truth: even in families where children are given plenty of affection by both parents, “young children may fail to develop prosocial relationships with their siblings if nobody teaches them how.” Less emphasis needs to be placed on the psychology, and more needs to be on skill-building.

What else is overrated? Parents imagine that the difference in age between siblings is an important factor. Some think it’s preferable to have kids less than two years apart, so they are close enough in age to play together; others feel they should wait three or four years, to help each child develop independence. But the research is entirely mixed—for every study that concludes age differences matter, there’s another study proving it doesn’t. “Relative to other factors,” said Kramer, “age spacing is not as strong a predictor. Nor is gender. There’s many other things to be concerned about.

As for what does matter, Kramer’s work offers one big surprise. One of the best predictors of how well two siblings get along is determined before the birth of the younger child. At first glance, this is astounding—how can it be possible to predict a clash of personalities, if one of the personalities at issue doesn’t even exist yet? How can their future relationship be knowable? But the explanation is quite reasonable. It has nothing to do with the parents. Instead, the predictive factor is the quality of the older child’s relationship with his best friend.

Kramer studied young kids from families who were expecting another child. She observed these kids playing one-on-one with their best friends. The kids who could play in a reciprocal, mutual style with their best friend were the ones who had good rapport with their younger sibling, years later.

It’s long been assumed that siblings learn on one another, and then apply the social skills they acquire to their relationships with peers outside the family. Kramer says it’s the other way around: older siblings train on their friends, and then apply what they know to their little brothers and sisters.

After monitoring these relationships with best friends, Kramer saw that one factor stood out as especially telling: shared fantasy play. As Kramer and John Gottman explained, “Fantasy play represents one of the highest levels of social involvement for young children.” In order for joint fantasy play to work, children must emotionally commit to one another, and pay attention to what the other is doing. They have to articulate what’s in their mind’s eye—and negotiate some scenario that allows both their visions to come alive. When 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.

If, however, the child hasn’t developed these good habits on friends, and the younger sibling comes along, now there’s very little incentive to learn the skills of shared play (choosing an activity both can enjoy, inviting the other and/or asking to be included, recognizing when someone is busy or wants to play alone). The incentive’s not there because, as Samantha Punch pointed out, the sibling will be there tomorrow no matter what. Siblings are prisoners, genetically sentenced to live together, with no time off for good behavior. There is simply no motivation to change.

Kramer also considered children’s behavior in day care and preschools. The fact that kids could cooperate in class or remain engaged in a group setting didn’t predict improved sibling relationships. It was that real connection between friends—that made a child care how his behavior impacted someone he liked—that was the catalyst for the difference.

“A parent is going to work hard to meet his child’s needs. They are highly motivated by love,” Kramer explained. “Other kids don’t care if you’re hungry or have a bruise on your knee—they have one, too.”

In other words, getting what you need from a parent is easy. It’s getting what you want from friends that forces a child to develop skills.

“It’s not that parents are unimportant,” Kramer has concluded. “But they are important in very different ways.”

Which is why, in a sense, what Kramer is really trying to do is transform children’s relationships from sibship to something more akin to a real friendship. If kids enjoy one another’s presence, then quarreling comes at a new cost. The penalty for fighting is no longer just a time-out, but the loss of a worthy opponent.
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