As an introspective and psychologically curious middle child, I’m fascinated with how siblings can affect each other, not just as children, but also into adulthood. As more statistically based studies are conducted on birth order, psychologists are finding that order itself isn’t as powerful as once thought. Instead, the affect siblings (as people) have on each other is more important.
“Growing up with each other generates differences” says Dr. Sylvia Rimm, Psychologist and Director of the Family Achievement Center in Cleveland Ohio. She speaks of the push and pull of relationships which generate a psychologically polarizing affect between siblings. We naturally want to individuate ourselves from our siblings.
I remember this from my own childhood and teenage years. I was upset that one of my sisters borrowed my clothes. I still remember the way it felt to this day. I somehow felt that people would see my sister wearing my clothes and I would lose a unique aspect of myself.
I think this especially bothered me because I saw my sister as prettier than me, and I adopted my unique fashion sense to be special. It sounds funny now, but this desire for individuality is backed by research. It can have a strong affect on each person’s approach to themselves and situations in life. This sibling differentiation is reinforced by parents by labeling children “the smart one” or “the sporty one”. This differentiation is especially powerful in siblings of similar age and gender. On a positive note, our differences feed competition.
This competitive feeling can translate into our adult and work lives. We may be acting on old rivalries or reacting to people in ways we learned growing up with certain people for siblings. The type of person our sibling is makes a huge difference in who we are and choices we make in life.
Let’s say your older sister was always a grade A student right from the start. With teachers, parents, and friends pegging her for Dartmouth since grade school, a couple of different outcomes can unfold, depending on your innate personality. First, it could set a pattern in your life for under achieving as the particular ability of being brainy is “already taken”. Secondly, it could set a pattern for an alternative (but just as achievement-oriented) success route from you sibling, like sports versus academics.
The number of siblings has a huge affect on our interaction with the world according to the research in “Money and Success – Sibling and Birth-Order Affects on Positional Concerns” It notes how single children are more pre-occupied with their social positioning or “positional concern” than children of multiple child families. Single children grow up with more pressure of living up to parental expectations.
Not having any siblings makes them the center of attention, and the central focus of hope and parental projection of their own aspirations. For people who did grow up with siblings, the more siblings we had the more positional concern we tend to develop and therefore, the more we care about relative income and relative successfulness, regardless of birth order.
The more people you have to individuate yourself from as a kid, the harder you tend to work to succeed as an adult. Siblings are our first interaction with the world beyond our parents.
The sibling relationship is really the place where we develop social skills with peers, rather than authority figures. These early interactions can spill over into our lives as we grow into adulthood and age. Our approach to other people is our approach to the world. So if we have learned to function well with our siblings, we can implement that success into our new relationships throughout life.
Whether we emulate siblings, learn from their mistakes, or deviate from them as much as possible, it’s clear that siblings have a huge affect on each other from a psychological and sociological perspective. However, no matter your birth order, how much you have bonded or pulled away from your sibling as a person or in interests, you are never limited to anything. You have every opportunity to develop in ways that make you unique and happy. All you need is a little perspective to recognize behavioral patterns and work on them.
It’s absolutely possible for siblings to be mutually successful; maybe in completely different ways. It all depends on who you are as individuals and how you decide to interpret and act on the interactions you experienced with those we so fondly (or sometimes not fondly) called our siblings.