The Science of Siblings – cracking the code?

I once read that the best predictor of whether your kids are going to get on lays its roots before your second child is even born.  It all rests on the quality and nature of your first child’s relationship with their best friend.  Quite a revelation.  Also, quite confusing when you only have a two-year age gap between boys.

Now your experience may be different to mine, but my  boys weren’t exactly big on social interaction under the age of two.  This was compounded by the fact that my eldest could barely get vertical in the first year of life.  He spent much of his time being stepped-over as he slinked across the floor with a one-armed commando crawl.  It’s therefore difficult to say who was his best friend.

One of my best friends had a fun, feisty daughter who could talk ten-to-the-dozen and who was similarly lazy in the moving-department.  My son used to ‘hang out’ with her (I mean: ‘eat each other’s’ rice crackers’….). I’m intrigued to know whether there was something in that relationship which laid the foundation for my son’s future relationship with his brother.  In truth, I can’t really remember the details, other than that they laughed a lot.

Before I read about it, I’d assumed that a child’s relationship with their friends mirrors how they play at home with their siblings, so I was surprised to hear that the reverse is true.  It seems that kids learn social skills from their friends not their families.  Their families love them too much (hopefully!).  In contrast, friendships with others are more precarious.  They don’t have to agree with them, or even like them.  They can’t be too boring or too bossy.  They can’t gloat over successes, or moan over losses.  To make friends, kids need to have what psychologists call the ‘theory of mind’ – to know that others think differently from themselves and to adapt accordingly.  This is the core of empathy and the basis for friendship.  Whilst kids may be unforgiving, thankfully they also learn quickly .

I guess this shows that just because they’re related, it doesn’t mean that siblings are automatically going to get on.  I thought it was interesting that so much attention was given to the Brownlee Brothers’ brotherly act at the end of the World Triathlon Series in Mexico.  Whilst it looked instinctive, it wasn’t to sports commentators, or even their own mother who cited their sibling rivalry as their main motivator.  This is no surprise when you hear that levels of competition increase the smaller the age gap (the Brownlees’ are two years apart) and if they are the same gender.  Turbo-charge that principle in the case of boys.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.  The emotional bank account just needs to be in balance.  You can’t keep withdrawing without giving back.  So it’s ok if they argue, as long as positive experiences outweigh the bad (this positivity ratio of 3:1 also predicts divorce rates…).  Those who have larger age gaps or a mix of boys and girls may have fewer fights on their hands, but they may also have less in common.  So it sounds like they need the lows to get the highs, or certainly they are an unavoidable part of life. Perhaps a larger gap means a greater likelihood of the older child becoming a protector and supporter, rather than competitor.

I’m sure we’d all like our kids to play together because they want to, not just because they have to and whilst I’d be lying if I said my guys didn’t bicker, I’d say they get on more than they don’t.  There’s a magnetism between them, resulting in them asking to be reunited minutes after they are separated “until they agree to play nicely”.

Perhaps our role is to help our kids appreciate how special their relationship is with one another – for their shared history, common world-view and sense of humour.  To remind them that they’re on the same team.   Whilst both my guys have great friends, I really hope their connection paves the way for a lifelong friendship with each other.

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