Discussion of NurtureShock, Chapter 6 "The Sibling Effect"

We're talking about NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman allsummer. One chapter every Friday. Jump in whenever you'd like. The first week we talked about Chapter 1 about praise. The second week we talked about Chapter 2 about sleep. The third week we talked about talking about race with your kids. The fourth week we talked about why kids lie and how we're inadvertently promoting that. Last week we talked about intelligence testing for preschoolers for school placement purposes. This week we're talking about how having siblings socializes children.

This week's chapter is entitled "The Sibling Effect" and it discusses why siblings fight and whether only children are less socialized than children with siblings are. I was particularly interested in this chapter for two reasons: First, my sister(-in-law) is an only child, and she's one of the best people I've ever met in every way. Even if she was the only only I'd ever met, she'd be evidence enough for me that onlies don't have problems relating to other people, so I wanted to see what the research said. Secondly, I have two boys (ages 8 and 5) who cannot keep their hands off each other. They are either hugging each other or punching each other, but more often they're punching each other. They fight what seems like constantly. (It demoralizes me. A lot.) I wanted to find out if that was going to get any better.

Here's the traditional wisdom: The basic premise of "needing" to have a sibling or five so you won't end up unsocialized is that kids learn to interact with other people by interacting with their siblings. So kids who grow up alone won't be as well-socialized as kids with siblings. (The book didn't go there, but I'd also say that I feel like there's an idea in the culture that siblings need to be 3.5 years apart or less or else they won't socialize well.)

Turns out (of course, because this is NurtureShock), that this is completely wrong. Kids don't learn to socialize with siblings at all. The biggest predictor for how well two siblings get along is how the older one gets along with their best friend at the time of the younger sibling's appearance in the family.  That held true across all age spacings, sex breakdowns, etc.

*Really* interesting, isn't it? If you read the chapter, you probably took a few minutes or days to think about this. If you're just reading it now, feel free to let that digest before you go on.

Here's what's really happening. With a friend, kids have to learn how to be kind, monitor the other person's feeling, share, find things they both want to do, and all the other stuff that goes into being a friend. If they don't, their friend won't want to be their friend anymore.

A sibling, on the other hand, is always there, no matter what the kid does, says, or forces them to eat. You can be kind and generous to your sibling or truly cruel and brutal to your sibling, and they'll still be there the next morning. You're stuck together, and how you act toward each other doesn't change that.

So there's no feedback loop of socialization with a sibling like there is with a friend. Of *course* the sibling relationships come out of the habits of friendship that have already been learned by the older one.

(The book didn't go into this, but I think this explains so much. Why siblings spaced together under 15 months or so tend to be either thick as thieves or mortal enemies--the older one had no practice being friends, so they have no model and it's a blank slate. It also explains why some spacings seem better than others--if those developmental ages are tough for the older child socially anyway, it makes sense that that will carry over into the sibling relationship.)

This also, of course, explains why there is no replicable difference in how socialized only children are compared to kids with siblings.

Now, here was the part that actually made me feel both worse and then much better: The way your kids interact now is not likely to change until the older one leaves the house. So if your kids fight a lot now, they're going to keep doing it. However, if they're fighting, they're also probably pretty engaged with each other, so you could take a more detailed look at how they interact. The chapter talks in detail about a program designed to help siblings enjoy playing with each other more, and what the leaders of the program were focusing on was that engagement. They weren't trying to stop the fighting, but instead to increase the fun the kids had with each other.

That was a big switch in my head. I've been thinking, "Why can't they just leave each other alone??" But I really don't want them to. I want them to enjoy each other. And if enjoying each other and doing fun things together also means they fight as part of it, I'll take it.

I'm going to try to replicate some of the stuff the program was doing to help kids have more fun together. I've already been trying to make the focus of our house activities they can do together instead of separately, and I think I'm going to keep doing that but extend it to other areas, like meal prep and chores. I'm also going to focus more on the way they engage with each other and worry less about the fighting. I've been talking to some adult male friends who have brothers, and they report that they *still* will wrestle and beat each other up when they're together, but they also seem to genuinely enjoy being with each other, too.

Who else read this chapter, and what did you take away from it? What did I miss in my summary?