DFWChild / Articles / Family Life / Behavior / How Siblings Shape Each Other

How Siblings Shape Each Other

“Cake pop!”
Mikayla gazes wide-eyed at her mom in expectation, coins clutched in her hand, visions of cake pops dancing through her head. For the past 45 minutes, the 5-year-old has sat not-very-patiently beside her 7-year-old sister Jayden at an area Starbucks, taking photos with Mom’s phone and coloring on the backs of old receipts while the adults chat about sibling dynamics. Now she’s out of her chair (again) and imploring Mom for a cake pop. Over. And. Over.
“Cake pop!”
Mid-Cities mom Sharolyn Ervin finally gives in, and Mikayla skips to the counter like it’s the best day of her life. Sharolyn glances at Jayden, who remains quietly at the table. “Do you want a cake pop?” Jayden shakes her head in the negative and returns to the Bingo app in front of her.
But even this only child knows exactly what’s coming next: Not as engrossed in her game as at first she appears, Jayden sneaks a few furtive peeps at the pastry case and eventually slips away from the table. Minutes later, both sisters march back triumphantly with pastel pink cake pops in hand. “Did you get that cake pop because your sister got one?” Sharolyn teases Jayden. She smiles sheepishly then drowns her shame in pink fondant.
Siblings are used to the whole sibling thing, and frankly, we only children just don’t get it. Science didn’t either, until embarrassingly recently. For decades, sibling research was primarily limited to birth-order studies, peppered with investigations comparing only children to those with siblings. Now studies are popping up to measure just how much siblings influence each other, and what exactly that influence looks like – whether it’s sharing hobbies, picking up good (or bad) behaviors or changing your mind about cake pops. Most important, parents can become more aware of how they affect their children’s relationships with each other and what to watch out for to keep those relationships rosy.
But no matter how informative the studies, sometimes it’s best to go straight to the source: families with more than one kid.
Fearless leaders
I arrive at the park at the same time as a school bus, and by the time I’ve made my way to the bench that North Texas mom Shannon Alexy and her six kids have claimed as home base, the schoolchildren are swarming onto the playground like fire ants from a kicked mound. They engulf the wooden structures in seconds. Many of them look older than Shannon’s kids, who are ages 10, 8, 6, 4, 3 and 6 months.
My only-child instincts are screaming, “Run away! Run away!” in valiant Monty Python fashion, and I almost suggest relocating away from the teeming masses. But Shannon’s now-outnumbered clan retreats to the bench for a Doritos break then plunges into the fray, and before long Donal, the oldest, is playing tag with a bunch of the schoolkids, his 6-year-old brother Billy close behind. Emily sits next to a girl who is by herself, and eventually three of Shannon’s kids end up whirling on the tire swing with a couple kids they don’t know.
“They’re open to anything,” Shannon says. Her second-oldest, Kailyn, used to be shy, when the house was a little emptier. No longer. “The more siblings, the more open the kids have become to meeting new kids and starting friendships and not being afraid to put themselves out there.”
That seems to be a common side effect of having a sibling: social fearlessness, for extroverts and introverts alike. Other local moms agree. Grapevine’s Lynley Phillips, who blogs about her two kids at savethephillipsfamily.com, says Isaac, 8, and Evelyn, 6, have no qualms about initiating contact with outsiders. “If they’re at a party, they go up to other kids, talk to them, play with them, introduce themselves,” she says. “They make friends everywhere they go.”
Siblings seem to acquire these skills simply because they have another small person in the house. This doesn’t mean that only children are doomed to social ineptitude forever – we learn the same skills in other places, if later than our peers. According to two different studies co-written by Douglas B. Downey at Ohio State University, children with siblings demonstrate better social skills than their only-child peers in kindergarten, but by adolescence, those advantages disappear as we onlies crawl out from under our rocks and catch up.
Where we may be disadvantaged is in our dealings with the opposite sex. Dawn Hallman, executive director of the Dallas Association for Parent Education, believes that having opposite-sex siblings paves the way for easier interactions with the opposite sex outside of the home. “If you’re a girl and you have brothers, you ‘get’ boys,” says Hallman, who ruled the roost during many a playtime with her three younger brothers. “You may think they’re gross, but you get them.”
Fort Worth mom Rachael Brown says her three daughters have learned plenty from brothers Ryan, 14, and Blake, 9, about Star Wars, skateboarding and the anatomy of old pick-up trucks – the perfect fodder for conversations with other boys. Likewise, the boys have learned to navigate the treacherous waters of female emotions. “The boys understand how not to upset a girl – they learn this at home at the dinner table!”
Give and take
Early socialization means that sibs walk into first grade with realistic notions of equity in social situations. Because they have to share from the time they’re old enough to yank toys out of each other’s hands, they lose early the naïve expectation that they’ll always get what they want – there is always someone to compete with for resources and attention, someone to steal your thunder or your action figure. “That’s an important social relationship to understand, that people aren’t always fair and you are not always going to get your own way,” says Wendy Middlemiss, Ph.D., associate professor of educational psychology at the University of North Texas. This is an awareness that can translate from playtime to playground, and eventually into the boardroom.
The constant give-and-take also forces siblings to compromise to get what they want. The collective bargaining of Audra and Bill Crews’ gang is the stuff of legend. North Texas’ own Brady Bunch (seriously: three boys, three girls, blended family) has made a living off their ability to combine forces when convenient. “They gang up on us. They campaign for things,” Audra says, such as the swimming pool they still don’t have. “But they do make alliances, like on Survivor.”
“It’s like watching Congress,” Bill adds. In the Crews household, it’s often a two-party system – boys versus girls – though they will cross party lines to get majority rule on Movie Night.
All of the political posturing and reaching across the dinner table has positive effects, even if it doesn’t land kids the swimming pool of their dreams. Hallman says siblings learn “the most incredible negotiating skills worthy of any attorney in the country” when they cooperate and compromise.
Parents can encourage these peace-making skills by letting their kids engage in passionate debate – also called fighting. “It has to be a fair fight,” Hallman clarifies. “I do not mean we are duking it out physically. That needs to be stopped every single time.” But if the kids are evenly matched and no one is in danger of dismemberment, the best thing you can do is grab some popcorn and let them work it out. When they bring the squabbling to you, reassure them that they are perfectly capable of diplomacy. “Remind them of past successes,” Hallman recommends. “In the heat of the moment, they sometimes forget they actually have skills.”
There may be a fine line, however, between fighting and being bullied. Bullying by a sibling can permanently sour the family dynamic. “You can become very bitter, very resentful, very depressed,” Hallman says. Parents should definitely intervene if they see psychological domination within a sibling relationship before the damage becomes irreparable.
Jackie (not her real name), a Dallas mom of two, hasn’t spoken with her older sister in more than three years. She recalls one day in middle school when her sister beat her up in the hallway because she was wearing her sister’s Ozzy Osbourne shirt. “It was embarrassing on so many levels,” Jackie says, and it wasn’t even an isolated incident. Jackie suffered physical and verbal abuse from her sister for years. “I learned how to fight because of her. We would literally fistfight.”
Jackie’s parents did nothing to stop the bullying. “My sister dominated the house,” Jackie says. “My dad had no backbone with her. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t stand up to her.” Jackie theorizes that maybe they were so embroiled in their own troubled relationship with her sister that they couldn’t see beyond it to fix the girls’ relationship with each other. Whatever the case, Jackie tries to learn from their non-example. “Most of my decisions are based on doing the opposite of what my mom did.” She plays referee when she thinks it’s necessary, and she teaches her girls flat-out that mean behavior is not OK.
But despite the parenting lessons she’s learned, Jackie is far from content with how her family relationships have played out. She and her sister both spent time in rehab, and their parents divorced during the chaos. “I think it sucks. I’m not satisfied at all,” Jackie admits. “I fantasize about having the sister who lives close, who has kids. It’s something I dream about all the time.”
Monkey see, monkey do
Somehow – and this is mind-boggling – Jackie still thought her sister was “the coolest person in the world” when they were kids, even though she was getting smacked around. “I thought it was normal. I tried to be like her.”
That’s apparently the pattern, whether the siblings like each other or not. Rachael’s children do like each other, and they’ve all grown to be like each other: Her girls talk cars with her oldest son, her youngest son has decided hair cuts aren’t cool because his older brother doesn’t like them, her younger daughters now wear cowgirl boots just like the oldest, and all five kids gravitated toward Star Wars together.
Family after family, the song remains the same: Older sibling likes X; younger sibling suddenly decides X is the best thing ever. (Optional Part Three: Older sibling quickly abandons X.) Middlemiss and Sarah Feuerbacher, Ph.D., clinical director at the Southern Methodist University Center for Family Counseling, were both reluctant to make such generalizations about sibling emulation, because every set of siblings is indeed different. But most of the time, the formula fits.
Sometimes younger sibs want to impress (or outdo) their elders. Sometimes it just happens because big brother wants to watch Pokémon during family TV time, and little sister gets hooked. Exposure to something a sibling likes can bring out personality traits and interests in another child that might otherwise have remained suppressed. Rachael’s daughter Sydnee, 10, has always been a fount of creativity – she wants to be a professional nail artist – but her sister Katelyn, 12, hadn’t embraced her own inner artist until the two began putting on musical productions for the family. Now Katelyn wants to be a singer. “They budded into performers together,” Rachael says.
Shared interests can also be a natural consequence of not being the only passenger of Mom’s Taxi Service – siblings end up at each other’s practices, games and events. But parents should be cautious about letting the convenience of carpooling or the preferences of siblings dictate their kids’ interests. “It’s very important to allow children to explore different options and not feel as though they should do, or shouldn’t do, anything like their siblings,” Middlemiss says.
Suzanne Stevenson, Family Life Education Program manager at The Parenting Center in Fort Worth, explains that some siblings intentionally create distance, choosing their activities and shaping their personas to set themselves apart, especially as they move into the teenage years and begin figuring out their identities. This so-called “de-identification” can be especially pronounced between siblings who are close in age – and therefore, more likely to be compared.
The Crews family has a pair of de-identifiers in Marin, 15, and Zoe, 13, who are one grade apart in school but worlds apart in everything else. “The girls are polar opposites,” says their dad Bill. “It’s almost as if they’ve gone purposely in different directions.” For example, they were both involved in volleyball and theater until they realized that volleyball was really Marin’s “thing” and theater was Zoe’s. So Marin dropped theater and Zoe dropped volleyball.

In weightier matters, you may be praying for de-identification to happen. If a girl gets pregnant as a teen, her younger sisters are more likely to do so – same for drinking and smoking. Feuerbacher says that parents can minimize these negative influences by cultivating individualism in their children. “If a parent really makes sure to not generalize the children as a group, each child will feel like they can make their own choices,” she says. They can learn from their sibling’s mistakes – and realize that acting out is not the only way to get attention.
At the same time, knowing a younger sibling is watching and learning can keep the older ones in line. “I’ve seen them catch themselves,” Sharolyn says of Kira, 12, and Kai, 11. She’s watched them start to cut corners when cleaning the kitchen but decide to do it right when they realize Jayden and Mikayla are observing from the doorway. “The older ones are the role models. It really helps them make conscious choices.”
Middlemiss explains that for much of their lives, siblings look to each other for moral guidance. But Stevenson adds that parents, not the oldest child, are ultimately at the top of the role-modeling hierarchy. How you act affects how your children act, and how one child behaves can shape what another child ultimately becomes.
All grown up
What happens in childhood doesn’t stay in childhood. But if your children are thick as thieves now, chances are that relationship will endure into adulthood, studies show. Sharolyn and her twin sister, who also lives in the DFW area, are “almost too close,” but Sharolyn hopes her kids can have a similar experience. “I would love for them to always stay together and be close,” she says.
Sadly, rifts that open up between siblings in childhood often endure as well. Favoritism, unfair treatment, bullying or just a lack of similar interests – whatever creates that distance between siblings doesn’t just go away. In a poll of our readers, 35 percent reported a poor relationship with at least one sibling, and 30 percent said they’re not satisfied with any of their sibling relationships. “I’ve made peace with the decision to cut one brother out of my life,” wrote one respondent. “Ideally, we would all gather at the Thanksgiving table with our families, but that’s not how it worked out for us.”
Jackie says she would be open to a relationship with her sister, if her sister ever makes the effort. Until then she’ll keep her distance. “I’ve just gotten hurt too many times.”
Hope is not lost if your kids aren’t BFFs. Shannon has an older sister with whom she got along as kids, but they weren’t especially close. Now the two are inseparable. “My sister and I – we’re the only reason we’re still alive,” Shannon says. She is thankful that her own kids are already close, and she hopes those relationships continue to tighten. “They’re all very close right now, and they would all do anything for the others.”
Shannon’s two oldest are rounding up their younger siblings as Shannon and I wind down our conversation. The schoolkids are still milling around the playground, while a chaperone tries to herd them into some semblance of a line. As I weave through the throng back to the parking lot, I look back and see the five older Alexy kids standing in a knot by the bench, their baby brother’s stroller in their midst. I wouldn’t trade my only child status for the world, but I kind of get it.

Published January 2014