A colleague related the following story: while running errands with her 11- and 7-year-old daughters, a back seat battle began to rage. My colleague’s attempts to defuse the situation only led to a shouting match about who was to blame for the skirmish. Finally the 11-year-old proclaimed to her sister, “You started it the day you were born and took away Mom’s love!”
This pair of sisters fight frequently, and from their mother’s perspective, part of the reason is that the two have little in common. As it turns out, their situation is not unique.
Despite the fact that siblings are, on average, 50% genetically similar, are often raised in the same home by the same parents, attend the same schools and have many other shared experiences, siblings are often only as similar to each other as they are to children who are growing up across town or even across the country.
So, what is it that makes two siblings from the same family so different?
What makes the difference?
As researchers of sibling and family relationships, we knew that at least one answer to this question comes from theory and data showing that, at least in some families, siblings try to be different from one another, and seek to establish a unique identity and position in their family.
From a child’s perspective, if an older brother excels at school, it may be easier to attract her parents’ attention and praise by becoming a star athlete than by competing with her brother to get the best grades. In this way, even small differences between siblings can become substantial differences over time.
But parents may also play a role. For instance, when parents notice differences between their children, children may pick up on parents’ perceptions and beliefs about those differences. This, in turn, can increase sibling differences.
We wanted to test these ideas to see what makes siblings different. So, we used data from first- and second-born teenage siblings from 388 two-parent families to examine sibling differences in school performance.
We asked mothers and fathers to report on whether they thought the two siblings differed in their academic abilities, and if so, which sibling was more capable. We also collected school grades from both siblings’ report cards.
Preference for the firstborn
Our analyses showed some interesting results: parents tended to believe that the older sibling was better in school. This was even when older siblings did not actually receive better grades, on average.
This may be a product of parents having greater expectations for firstborns or that, at any given time, the older sibling is undertaking more advanced school work.
There was, however, an exception to this pattern: in families with older brothers and younger sisters, parents rated the younger sibling as being more capable. In fact, in those families, younger sisters received better grades than their older brothers.
Our findings also showed that it was not sibling differences in school grades that predicted parents’ ratings of their children’s abilities. Rather, parents’ beliefs about differences in their children’s abilities predicted later sibling differences in school grades.
In other words, when parents believed one child was more capable than the other, that child’s school grades improved more over time than their sibling’s.
Although we expected that children’s school grades and parents’ beliefs about their children’s relative abilities would be mutually influential, it turned out that parents’ beliefs did not change much over their children’s teenage years.
Instead, sibling differences in school grades did change, and were predicted by parents’ beliefs. In this way, parents’ beliefs about differences between their children may encourage the development of actual sibling difference.
The above comment by an 11-year-old highlights that children are sensitive to their place and value in the family – relative to those of their siblings. Parents may strive to show their love for their children, but they also should be aware that small differences in how they treat their children can have large effects – including on their children’s development and adjustment, and also on the sibling relationship.
Indeed, some research suggests that sibling conflict arises when children try to be different from their siblings.
My colleague may be correct that her daughters fight frequently because they have nothing in common. But their conflicts may also be motivated by her daughters’ perception that their differences started on the day her sister was born “and took away Mom’s love.”
en españolLlevarse bien con los hermanos
In a house with more than one kid, there are bound to be some problems. Brothers and sisters borrow stuff, and don't always return it in top condition. Younger kids sometimes feel like the older kids get to do whatever they want. Older brothers and sisters think that the baby of the family gets more attention. These are typical problems found throughout the ages, everywhere in the world.
When brothers and sisters don't get along, it's called sibling rivalry (say: SIH-bling RYE-vul-ree). A sibling is a brother or sister and rivalry means competition. It's normal, but too much competition can make for an unhappy home life.
Let's talk about getting along with brothers and sisters. They're not so bad, are they?
What Is Sibling Rivalry?
A little competition isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it can keep you working hard — like when you and your brother spend time shooting hoops. If he's good at it, it may make you want to improve, too. But some sibling rivalry involves arguing, like when you think your brother is hogging the ball. People who love each other might argue sometimes, but too much fighting is unpleasant for everyone.
Have you ever heard of the green-eyed monster called jealousy? Sometimes brothers and sisters are jealous of one another. For instance, if your sister always does well at school, it may be frustrating for you, especially if your grades are lower.
Although you're probably proud of your sibling or siblings, it's normal to be a little jealous, too. It may make you feel better to focus more on doing your own personal best, rather than comparing yourself with a brother or sister.
All kids want attention from their parents, but sometimes you need to take turns. If you're feeling ignored or like your sibling is always in the spotlight, talk to your mom or dad. If a parent knows you're feeling left out, together you can figure out ways to help you feel better again.
Don't Lose Your Cool
Sometimes when you're jealous and frustrated, it's easy to lose your temper. Try to follow these tips to avoid getting into a fight with your brother or sister:
- Take a deep breath and think a bit. Try to figure out if you are angry with the person or just frustrated with the situation.
- Remind yourself that you have special talents. Your sister may have won an art contest, but you might be better at basketball, or math, or singing. Eight-year-old Marisa says her brother "always wins running races, but I always get gold stars for good homework grades and that makes me feel better."
- Try to congratulate your siblings on their achievements and share their happiness. If you do this for them, they'll be more likely to do it for you.
Hopefully, these tips will work. But if the situation gets out of control and you and your brother or sister start fighting a lot, you may need to talk to someone. Mean words can lead to hitting and physical fighting. If this is going on with you and your sibling, talk to a parent or another trusted adult.
It may be hard to believe now, but your brother or sister may turn out to be your best friend someday. Many brothers and sisters fight and compete with each other while growing up but become very close when they get older. As you grow up, your friends might change, but your family is your family forever.