The Ties That Bind: Why Brothers and Sisters Matter

We know how important our parents and our spouses are. As for our kids, we’d die for them. But there’s one bond we underrate, says Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect (Riverhead Books). “From the time we’re born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and coconspirators, our role models and our cautionary tales,” writes Kluger, a Time senior editor, and one of four brothers. We asked:

Why do we take our siblings for granted?
They are seen as early-life companions whom we lose interest in over time, but we actually imprint very early on the people closest to us. Of course, that involves your parents, but siblings are there all the time too. Even the most attentive parents are more like doctors on grand rounds. They say “Put his toy down” and “He’s not going to hit you again” and “Dinner’s on the table in 15 minutes.” But to the kids, there’s a power struggle going on; there’s possession of property; there’s physical aggression. The people with whom you engage in those psychodramas become vitally important to your development.

What about parental favoritism — how does that play out in adulthood?
It can actually benefit the nonfavored child, who becomes better at understanding that kudos have to be earned. On the other hand, the favored child quickly develops self-esteem and confidence, while the less-favored has to struggle. Most people grow past it, but when parents are aging, it creates problems. If you were the favored oldest son, and your little sister who always felt second-tier becomes the caregiver, she has every right to be exasperated.

How does the sibling bond change later in life?

There’s a sort of sibling moratorium when you’re establishing yourself as an adult. So much of your energy has to be focused on other things like work and kids. But when people become more settled, siblings tend to regroup because now you’re building a new extended family. Some of the most rewarding times my brothers and I have are when all of us get together, and we can see what we’ve been building genetically and culturally. You can get through life fine without them, but to have siblings and not exploit that resource is folly of the first order.

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