Jeff Kluger: The Hidden Power of Siblings at TEDxAsheville (Transcript)

I opened my new book, The Sibling Effect, on a Saturday morning, not long before this picture was taken. When the three older brothers decided that it might be a very good idea to lock the younger brother in a fuse cabinet in our playroom. We were, believe it or not, trying to keep him safe.

Our father was a hot-headed man, somebody who didn’t take kindly to being disturbed on Saturday mornings, I don’t know what he thought his life would be like on Saturday mornings when he had four sons, ages four years older younger when the youngest one was born but they weren’t quiet. He did not take to that well. And he would react to being disturbed on a Saturday morning by stalking into the playroom and administer in a very freewheeling form of a corporal punishment, lashing out at whoever was within his arms’ reach. We were by no means battered children but we did get hit and we found it terrifying.

So we devised this sort of scatter and hide drill. As soon as we saw or heard the footsteps coming, Steve the oldest, would wriggle under the couch, I would dive into the closet in the playroom, Gary would dive into a window seat toy chest, but not before we closed Bruce inside the fuse box. We told him it was Alan Shepard’s space capsule, and that somehow made it work better.

I dare say my father was never fooled by these rules. And it was only in later years that I began to think “Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to squeeze a four year old up against a panel of old style unscrewed high voltage fuses.”

But my brothers and I, even through those unhappy times came through them, with something that was clear and hard and fine. A primal appreciation for the bond we shared. We were a unit; a loud, messy brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit. We felt much stronger that way than we ever could as individuals. And we knew that as our lives went on we could always be able to call on that strength.

We’re not alone. Until 15 years ago, scientists didn’t really pay much attention to the sibling bond. And with good reason — you have just one mother, you have just one father if you do marriage right, you have one spouse for life. Siblings can claim none of that uniqueness. They’re interchangeable, fungible, a kind of household commodity. Parents set up shop and begin stocking their shelves with inventory. The only limitation would be in sperm, egg and economics. As long as you can keep breathing, you may as well keep stocking.

Now, nature is perfectly happy with that arrangement because our primal directive here is to get as many of our genes as possible into the next generation. Animals wrestle with these same issues, too. But they have a more straightforward way of dealing with things. A crested penguin that has laid two eggs will take a good look at them and boot the smaller one out of the nest. The better to focus her attentions on the presumably hardier chick in the bigger shell. A black eagle will allow all of her chicks to hatch and then stand back while the bigger ones fight it out with the little ones typically ripping them to ribbons and then settling back to grow up in peace. Piglets, cute as they are, are born with a strange little outward set of pointing teeth, that they use to jab at one another as they compete for the choices for the nursing spots.

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The problem for scientists was that this whole idea of siblings as second class citizens never really seemed to hold up. After the researchers had learned all they could from the relationships in the family, mothers and other relationships, they still came up with some temperamental dark matter that was pulling at us, exerting a gravity on its own. And that could only be our siblings.

Humans are no different from animals. After we are born we do whatever we can to attract the attention of our parents, determining what our strongest selling points are and marketing them ferociously. Someone’s the funny one, someone’s the pretty one, someone’s the athlete, someone’s the smart one. Scientists call this “De-identification”. If my older brother is a high-school football player which if you saw my older brother you’d know he was not, I could become a high school football player, too and get at most 50% of the applause in my family for doing that.

Or, I could become student council president or specialize in the arts and get a 100% of the attention in that area. Sometimes parents contaminate the De-identification process, communicating to their kids subtly or not, that only certain kinds of accomplishments would be applauded in the home. Joe Kennedy was famous for this making it clear to his nine children that they were expected to compete with one another in athletics and were expected to win, lest they’d be made to eat in the kitchen with the help rather than in the dining room with the family.

It’s no wonder that scrawny second born Jack Kennedy fought so hard to compete with his fitter first born brother Joe often at his peril. At one point engaging in a bicycle race around the house that resulted in a collision costing John 28 stitches. Joe walked away essentially unharmed.

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