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

The feuds in the playroom that play out over favoritism, birth order and so many other issues are as unrelenting as they seem. In one study I cite in the book, children in the two to four age group engage in one fight every 6.3 minutes or 9.5 fights an hour. That’s not fighting, that’s performance art. That’s extraordinary. One reason for this is that there are a lot more people in your home than you think there are or at least a lot more relationships. Every person in your house has a discreet one-on-one relationship with every other person and those pairings or dyads add up fast.

In a family with two parents and two kids there are six dyads. Mom has a relationship with child A and B, dad has a relationship with child A and B. There’s the marital relationship and there is the relationship between the kids themselves. The formula for this looks very chilly but it’s real. K equals the number of people in your household and X equals the number of dyads. In a five-person-family there are ten discreet dyads. The eight-person Brady Bunch, never mind the sweetness here, there were 28 dyads in that family. The original Kennedy family with nine kids had 55 different relationships. And Bobby Kennedy who grew up to have 11 children of his own had a household with a whopping 91 dyads. This overpopulation of relationships makes fights unavoidable.

And far and away the biggest trigger for all sibling fights is property. Studies have found that over 95% of the fights among small children concern somebody touching, playing with, looking at the other person’s stuff. This in its own way is healthy if it’s very noisy, and the reason is that small children come into the world with absolutely no control. They are utterly helpless. The only way they have of projecting their very limited power is through the objects they can call their own. When somebody crosses that very erasable line they’re going to go nuts, and that’s what happens.

Another very common casus belli among children is the idea of fairness. As any parent who hears 14 times a day: “But that’s unfair”, can tell you. In a way this is good too though. Kids are born with a very innate sense of right and wrong, of a fair deal versus an unfair one and this teaches them powerful lessons.

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You want to know how powerfully encoded fairness is in the human genome? We process that phenomenon through the same lobe in our brain that processes disgust, meaning we react to the idea of somebody being cheated the same way we react to putrefied meat. Any wonder that this fellow Bernie Madoff is unpopular. All of these dramas played out day to day, moment to moment serve as a real time, total immersion exercise for life. Siblings teach each other conflict avoidance and conflict resolution, when to stand up for themselves, when to stand down, they learn love, loyalty, honesty, sharing, caring, compromise, the disclosure of secrets and much more important, the keeping of confidences.

I listen to my young daughters — aren’t they adorable? — I listen to my young daughters talking late into the night. The same way my parents no doubt listened to my brothers and me talking, and sometimes I intervene, but usually I don’t. They’re part of a conversation I am not part of, nobody else in the world is part of, and it’s a conversation that can and should go on for the rest of their lives. From this will come a sense of constancy, a sense of having a permanent traveling companion, somebody with whom they road tested life before they ever had to get out and travel it on their own.

Brothers and sisters aren’t the sine qua non of a happy life; plenty of adult sibling relationships are fatally broken and need to be abandoned for the sanity of everybody involved. And only children throughout history have shown themselves to be creatively, brilliantly capable of getting their socialization and comradeship skills through friends, through cousins, through classmates.

But having siblings and not making the most of those bonds is I believe folly of the first order. If relationships are broken and are fixable, fix them. If they work make them even better. Failing to do so, is a little like having a thousand acres of fertile farmland and never planting it. Yes, you can always get your food at the supermarket but think what you’re allowing to lie fallow. Life is short, it’s finite, and it plays for keeps. Siblings maybe among the richest harvests of the time we have here.

Thank you.