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

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

Jeff Kluger

Here is the full transcript of Time Magazine’s senior writer Jeff Kluger’s TEDx Talk presentation: The Hidden Power of Siblings at TEDxAsheville conference. Jeff Kluger is the author of Apollo 13, upon which the 1995 movie was based. His newest book is Apollo 8 which will be published in May 2017.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The hidden power of siblings by Jeff Kluger at TEDxAsheville



Thank you. Thank you very much. It is bright.

Well, TED has already persuaded me to change my life in one small way by persuading me to change the opening of my speech. I love this idea of engagement. So, when you leave here today, I’m going to ask you to engage or re-engage with some of the most important people in your lives: your brothers and sisters. It can be a profoundly life-affirming thing to do, even if it isn’t always easy.

This is a man named Elliot for whom things were very difficult. Elliot was a drunk. He spent most of his life battling alcoholism, depression, morphine addiction and that life ended when he was just 34 years old. What made things harder for Elliot is that his last name was Roosevelt. And he could never quite get past the comparisons with his big brother Teddy for whom things always seemed to come a little bit easier.

It wasn’t easy being Bobby, either. He was also the sibling of a president. But he adored his brother Jack. He fought for him, he worked for him. And when Jack died, he bled for him too.

In the years that followed, Bobby would smile, but it seemed labored. He’d lose himself in his work, but it seemed tortured. Bobby’s own death, so similar to John’s, seems somehow fitting. John Kennedy was robbed of his young life. Bobby seemed almost to have been relieved of his.

There may be no relationship that affects us more profoundly, that’s closer, finer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with wow than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters. There is power in the sibling bond. There is pageantry. There is petulance too. As when Neil Bush, sibling of both a president and a governor, famously griped “I’ve lost patience for being compared to my older brothers.” As if Jeb and George W. Bush were somehow responsible for the savings and loan scandal and the messy divorce that marked Neil in the public eye.

But more important than all of these things, the sibling bond can be a thing of abiding love. Our parents leave us too early, our spouse and our children come along too late. Our siblings are the only ones who are with us for the entire ride.

Over the arc of decades, there may be nothing that defines us and forms us more powerfully than our relationships with our sisters and brothers. It was true for me, it’s true for your children and if you have siblings it’s true for you, too.

This picture was taken when Steve, on the left, was eight years old. I was six, our brother Gary was five and my brother Bruce was four. I will not say what year it was taken, it was not this year.

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.”

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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.

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.

Parents exacerbate this problem further when they exhibit favoritism which they do overwhelmingly, no matter how much they admit it. A study I cite in this Time Magazine, covering in the book The Sibling Effect, found that 70% of fathers and 65% of mothers exhibit a preference for at least one child. And keep in mind here the keyword is exhibit. The remaining parents may simply be doing a better job of concealing things.

I’d like to say that 95% of all parents have a favorite, 5% are lying about it. The exception is my wife and me, honestly we do not have a favorite.

It’s not parents’ fault that they harbor feelings of favoritism. And here, too, our natural wiring is at work. Firstborns are the first products on the familial assembly line. Parents typically get two years of investing dollars, calories and so many other resources in them so that by the time the second born comes along the first born is already, it’s what corporations call, sunk costs, you don’t want to disinvest in this one, and launch the R&D on a new product.

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So what we begin to do is say “I’m going to lean to the Mac OS 10 and let the Mac OS 11, come out in a couple of years.” So we tend to lean in that direction, but there are other forces at work, too. One of the same studies I looked at here, both here and in the book, found that improbably the most common favorite for a father is the last born daughter, the most common favorite for a mother is the first born son. Now this isn’t Oedipal, never mind what the Freudians would have told us a hundred years ago, and it’s not just that fathers are habitually wrapped around the fingers of their little girls, though I can tell you that, as the father of two girls that part definitely plays a role.

Rather, there is a certain reproductive narcissism at work. Your opposite born sons — your opposite gender kids can never resemble you exactly. But if somehow they can resemble you temperamentally you love them all the more. As the result, the father who is a businessman will just melt at the idea of his MBA daughter with the toughest nails worldview. The mother who is a sensitive type will go gooey over her son the poet.

Birth order, another topic I covered for Time and another topic I cover in the book plays out in other ways as well. Long before scientists began looking at this, parents noticed that there are certain temperamental templates associated with all birth rankings. The serious, striving first born, the caught-in-a-thicket middle born, the wild child of a last born. And once again when scientists did crack this field they found out mom and dad are right.

First-borns across history have tended to be bigger and healthier than later borns, in part because of the headstart they got on food in an area on which it could be scarce. First-borns are also vaccinated more reliably and tend to have more follow-up visits to doctors when they get sick. And this pattern continues today. This IQ question is, sadly — I can say this as a second born — a very real thing, first-borns have a three point IQ advantage over second-borns and second-borns have a 1.5 IQ advantage over later borns, partly because of the exclusive attention first-borns get from mom and dad, and partly because they get a chance to mentor their younger kids.

All of this explains why first-borns are likelier to be CEOs, they are likelier to be senators, they are likelier to be astronauts and they are likelier to be earn more than other kids are. Last borns come into the world with a whole different set of challenges. The smallest and weakest cubs in the den, they’re at the greatest risk of getting eaten alive, so they have to develop what are called low power skills. The ability to charm and disarm to intuit what’s going on in someone else’s head, the better to duck the punch before it lands. They are also flat out funnier which is another thing that comes in handy because a person who’s making you laugh is a very hard person to slug.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that over the course of history some of our greatest satirists: Swift, Twain, Voltaire, Colbert, are either the last borns or among the last in very large families.

Most middle borns don’t get quite a sweet a deal. I think of us as the flyover states. We are — we’re the ones who fight harder for recognition in the home. We’re the ones who are always raising our hands while someone else at the table is getting called on. We’re the ones who tend to take a little longer to find their direction in life. And there can be self-esteem issues associated with that. Now, withstanding the fact that I’ve been asked to do TED so I feel much better about these things right now.

But the upside for middle borns is that they also tend to develop denser and richer relationships outside the home but that advantage comes also from something of a bit disadvantaged simply because their needs weren’t met as well in the home.

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.

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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.

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.

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