Jewish World Review July 14, 2006 / 18 Tamuz 5766

Betsy Hart

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How siblings shape us


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Ah, so now I can prove to my four kids that their siblings sometimes torment them for a good purpose after all.


Time magazine, in a fascinating cover story, explored the impact that siblings have on each other over the long term. In "How Your Siblings Make You Who You Are," Jeffrey Kluger delves into the growing understanding among researchers that our brothers and sisters have a huge impact on shaping the person each of us becomes.


This isn't about birth order. This is about the interaction that occurs between siblings. By the time children are 11, they devote "33 percent of their free time to their siblings," more than to anyone else, including parents, Kluger writes. Even busy adolescents spend about 10 hours a week with their sibs. And researchers are discovering that that's pretty powerful.


Back to the tormenting part. It turns out a lot of the "shaping" of siblings may come from fighting and yet having to resolve the conflict simply because they are permanent fixtures in each other's lives. (Kluger reveals that between ages 3 to 7, for instance, kids clash about 3.5 times an hour and at younger ages it's worse. No surprises there!)


I think so often we parents agonize over our children's relationships. I often try to help my children work through their difficulties with each other, to help them to get to the heart of the matter or just to set the (alas, too-often-ignored) rule that they can't come to me to solve an argument or if they are offended until they've first tried to work it out directly with the other child.


But I can't and I won't get involved in all their interactions and disputes. They have to learn to navigate some things, many things, on their own.


It would be useless, even counterproductive, anyway. I can see dynamics at work in my children's relationships that are clear, apparently inexorable, and yes, sometimes even seemingly negative.


Look, at the moment, if my kids were on an episode of "Survivor" together, I know exactly who would be voted off the island.


Next week and next month and next year, it will be a different child. In fact, at almost any moment each of my kids could name a sibling he or she feels is a tormentor, when yesterday the offender was the sibling's best playmate. That's the dynamics, the ebb and flow, of a family.


In any event, I've long felt there's no point in pretending that a particular child isn't being an irritant to another at the moment — or even over time. I'm just not going to sugarcoat the obvious. This doesn't mean the issue at hand is necessarily ignored by any means. But it does mean I try to help the one child learn mercy for and patience with the more challenging one, and to see that no matter how one may "feel" to the contrary, the other child is also loved and was placed in our family for a reason — and maybe it's partly to prepare the offended child to deal better with a friend now, or later a husband or wife or work partner or others, when they are being difficult.


The bottom line is that I can't and I won't protect my children from every adversity — even when it comes in the form of a sibling. But I will try to help them see that that adversity can be a wonderful teaching and soul-softening agent.


Sure enough, Kluger writes: "Does the manager who runs a congenial office call on the peacemaking skills learned in the family playroom? Does the student struggling with a professor who plays favorites summon up the coping skills acquired from dealing with a sister who was Daddy's girl? Do husbands and wives benefit from the intergender negotiations they waged when their most important partners were their sisters and brothers?"


Apparently the answer, more and more researchers are finding, is "yes."


Oh, and one distinct advantage for my son I've clearly noticed as a result of his growing up with three sisters, something for which his future wife will forever be thankful: He always puts the toilet seat down.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.

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