The Sibling EffectⅠ- Woodmam

Freud was wrong. Shakespeare was right. Why siblings really fight.

In Brazil recently, a team of scholars studied the medical data from an emergency room, looking at all the cases where children had been rushed in after swallowing coins. The scholars were curious—was swallowing coins more common for children who didn’t have any brothers or sisters? In the end, they decided their sample size was too small to draw any conclusion.

This was far from the first time scholars had tried to find strange side effects of being an only child. In Italy, a couple years ago, researchers tried to determine if female onlies were more likely to have an eating disorder in high school. (They weren’t.) In Israel, one scholar noted that onlies had higher incidence of asthma—at least compared to children who had 15 to 20 siblings. But compared to children with a normal number of siblings, there was barely any difference in the rate of asthma. Parents of onlies could stop worrying.

Meanwhile, over in the United Kingdom, researchers were studying whether onlies get fewer warts. Not that you need to know the answer, but what the heck—onlies do have somewhat fewer warts at age 11. However, Scottish researchers have informed us that onlies get more eczema.

It seems that research on onlies has gone batty. It’s no surprise why. In the last two decades, the proportion of women having only one child has about doubled in the United States, and single-child families are now more common than two-child families.

Nobody knows what this means for the children, but it seems reasonable that it must mean something. We have this idea because we’ve always stigmatized the exception, and onlies are a good example of that: way back in 1898, one of the pioneers of child psychology, G. Stanley Hall, wrote that “being an only child is a disease in itself.” Many scholars today cringe at this ridiculous statement, but the studies on warts and coin swallowing suggest some are still under the influence of Hall’s point of view.

Scientists have uncovered some things about onlies—where onlies measure out slightly differently than those with brothers and sisters. But these are not surprising discoveries. We know that onlies do a little bit better in school, on average—probably for the same reasons that oldest siblings do a tiny bit better than younger siblings. From a study in Australia we know that girl onlies average fifteen fewer minutes of physical activity per day, which probably explains the study in Germany that said preschool-aged onlies have slightly worse physical dexterity.

But that’s not what society worries about, when it comes to onlies. What we wonder is: “Do they know how to get along?” Nowhere is this question getting more scrutiny than in China, which has limited families in urban areas to one child since 1979. (Despite this policy, 42.7% of families in China today have two or more children.) When the policy was first implemented, critics argued that a country of onlies would destroy the character of the entire nation. Despite three decades of intense study on this question, the research in China is still very mixed. One report said onlies in middle school were less anxious and had better social skills. But another report stated that in high school it was just the opposite. The research on social skills is just as conclusive in China as the coin-swallowing research in Brazil.

Why are we seeing no clear effect? It’s surprising, because the theory that being an only child deprives a child of social skills makes so much logical sense. By growing up with siblings, a child has thousands upon thousands of interactions to learn how to get along. According to this theory, children with siblings should be massively more skilled at getting along than children with no siblings.

Yet they aren’t.

Maybe the mistake here was assuming that those thousands upon thousands of interactions with siblings amount to a single positive. Perhaps the opposite is true—that children learn poor social skills from those interactions, just as often as they learn good ones.

Dr. Laurie Kramer, Associate Dean at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is attempting to do the impossible: get brothers and sisters to be nicer to each other.

It was clear what she’s up against, after just a few minutes with parents who have enrolled their children in Kramer’s six-week program, “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers.” We were sitting on a circle of couches in a small room, watching their children on a closed-circuit television. On the other side of the wall, in a living room wired with seven hidden cameras, the children were working with Kramer’s undergraduate students.

“When they get going, it’s a like a freight train. It’s paralyzing,” remarked one mother about the fighting between her five-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. In her professional life, she’s a clinical psychiatrist working with wounded veterans. But it’s seeing her kids battling that she described as “painful to watch.”

Another mother sighed in frustration as we watched her seven-year-old son constantly taunt his four-year-old sister. “He knows what to say, but he just can’t be nice about it.” She stared into space for a moment, fighting a tear.

A mother of five-year-old twin girls felt that her kids are usually great together—but for some inexplicable reason, they can’t get through cooking dinner without a nightly argument.

The families in Kramer’s program are well-educated and well-off. Many of the parents are Illinois faculty, and their children attend one of the best private elementary schools in Urbana. These parents have done everything to provide their children with a positive environment. But there’s one wild card in the environment that they can’t control, undermining everything—how well the siblings get along.

Mary Lynn Fletcher is the program coordinator for Dr. Kramer; she’s on the receiving end of the phone calls from parents who want to get their kids in the program. “Many are shaking when they call. My heart goes out to them,” Fletcher said. “They are so stressed. Others, the stress isn’t so bad, but they are feeling so helpless. Every day, there’s a moment they have to deal with. One parent was driving her kids home from school, and she said, ‘Listen to this,’ then held the cell phone up to the back seat so I could hear the yelling.”

It might sound like these children were the problem cases, but Ashley and I had reviewed videotapes of the children made a month earlier, in their homes. Each tape recorded a half-hour stretch of the sibling pairs playing beside each other with their toys, without any parents in the room to mediate. On these videotapes, there was definitely some tension, but what we saw looked better than normal.

Observational studies have determined that siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 times per hour, on average. Some of those are brief clashes, others longer, but it adds up to ten minutes of every hour spent arguing. According to Dr. Hildy Ross, at the University of Waterloo, only about one out of every eight conflicts ends in compromise or reconciliation—the other seven times, the siblings merely withdraw, usually after the older child has bullied or intimidated the younger.

Dr. Ganie DeHart, at State University of New York College at Geneseo, compared how four-year-old children treat their younger siblings versus their best friends. In her sample, the kids made seven times as many negative and controlling statements to their siblings as they did to friends.

Scottish researcher Dr. Samantha Punch found similar results in her interviews of ninety children. She determined that kids don’t have an incentive to act nicely to their siblings, compared to friends, because the siblings will be there tomorrow, no matter what. She concluded, “Sibship is a relationship in which the boundaries of social interaction can be pushed to the limit. Rage and irritation need not be suppressed, whilst politeness and toleration can be neglected.”

So do they grow out of it, by having thousands of interactions of practice? Not really, according to Kramer. Back in 1990, she and her mentor, Dr. John Gottman, recruited thirty families who were on the verge of having a second child; their first child was three or four years old. Twice a week, for months, Kramer went into their homes to observe these siblings at play until the youngest were six months old. She was back again at fourteen months, then four years. Each time, Kramer scored the sibling relationship quality, by coding how often the kids were nice or mean to each other. Nine years later, Kramer tracked these families down again. By then, the older siblings were on the verge of college. Again, she videotaped them together. To make sure they didn’t ignore each other, she gave the sibling pairs some tasks—solve some puzzles together, and plan an imaginary $10,000 weekend for their family.

Kramer learned that sibling relationship quality is remarkably stable over the long term. Unless there had been some major life event in the family—an illness, a death, a divorce—the character of the relationship didn’t change until the eldest moved out of the house. For the most part, the tone established when they were very young, be it controlling and bossy or sweet and considerate, tended to stay that way.

“About half of these families are still in the Urbana-Champaign area,” said Kramer. “They’re now into their twenties. I see their graduation and wedding announcements in the paper. I bump into their parents at the grocery store. I ask how they’re getting along. It’s really more of the same.”

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