Family Life

Becoming Sibs

My mom loved to tell the story of when I was almost three and her belly was bulging with my brother and we were doing the laundry in the basement. Evidently, I climbed to the top of a mountain of dirty clothes and issued a decree. “Mommy, let’s name our baby Kenny.” Undoubtedly, it wasn’t my first bossy proclamation. But it was my first act of power over my brother. Naming him.

Baby Kenny arrived nine days after my third birthday—a month early and colicky. A screaming bundle who struggled to eat and spent way too much of his time in my Mommy’s arms. He changed the whole world.

KenandKelli2As he grew, Baby Kenny became both my plaything and my rival. I was both fascinated by him and horrified by his imposition. And so, while we built tent cities together in the living room and read Little House on the Prairie sitting on either side of Mom, while I dressed him up in Daddy’s clothes and instructed him to feed my dolls, we were also locked in a bit of a battle. A sometimes subtle, sometimes scrappy fight for my parents’ limited resources.

My main weapon was control. So I bossed and blamed. I picked and provoked. I did everything I could to maintain my privileged position and fend off his threat to my universe.

Sibling rivalry is as old as time, of course. And our tactics haven’t changed much.

It started with Cain and Abel. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to know how that turned out. Jealousy. Murder. The “no fair!” claim. The “you-liked-his-offering-better-than-mine” line. And the wide-eyed feigned innocence. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Then there were Jacob and Esau. They were doomed. Already fighting in the womb. Their parents played favorites. There was the bribe. The barter. “Give me your birthright, and I’ll give you some stew.” Then came Jacob’s deception. His disguise. And the stolen blessing. After which he was sent away. Running for his life.

Then there were Joseph and his many brothers. Daddy Jacob didn’t learn from his own father’s mistakes, and he played favorites himself. He gave Joseph a special robe. Were Joseph’s brothers jealous of his handsome coat or their father’s love? Probably both. And Joseph didn’t help matters, did he? Flaunting his dreams of power and control. His brother Judah did campaign to save his life. But still, Joseph was sold as a slave.

In recent years, many researchers have sought to describe and quantify the sibling rivalry phenomenon. One study found that siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 times every hour. In addition, only one out of every eight conflicts was resolved in a mutually satisfying way. In the other seven altercations, the siblings merely withdrew—often after the older sibling intimidated the younger (Dr. Hildy Ross).

Another study compared how four-year-old children treat their younger siblings versus their best friends. Not suprisingly, the kids made more negative and controlling statements to their sibs. Seven times more. Children understand at a very young age that friends can leave them. Siblings cannot (Dr. Ganie Dehart).

A third study measured the level of the older sibling’s jealousy when the younger sibling was sixteen months old and found that this was a surprisingly accurate predictor of the quality of the relationship for several years to come .

In a related study, Dr. Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois, followed thirty families for fourteen years. She concluded, “Sibling relationship quality was remarkably stable over the long term. Unless there had been some major life event in the family—an illness, a death, a divorce—the character of the relationship didn’t change until the eldest moved out of the house. For the most part, the tone established when they were very young, be it controlling and bossy or sweet and considerate, tended to stay that way.”

This was certainly true for Kenny and me.

In some ways, we had the same childhood. In some ways, we rode the same waves. We shared in the responsibility of caring for things. The house. The yard. Our parents. We both knew we were loved, but we also lived in the same vacuum—a world with little parental advice. Little instruction. As Kenny puts it, “Few navigational tools for how to handle life.”

But in other ways, from a very young age, our childhood was different. In some ways, we were rivals and our tone was established. Me, the bossy, overachieving, often detached sister. Him, the quiet, affectionate, sometimes angry son. While I overcompensated with activity and attention, he sought companionship with animals and flew under the radar. When I wanted to remake him in my own image, surprisingly he resisted. We fought. And we withdrew. And we were never given any effective guidance on how to do otherwise.

“You disowned me when you reached junior high,” Kenny says now. I don’t remember it that exactly, but maybe I did. In those awkward, self-conscious years, I probably wanted to disown everyone and everything.

What I do remember is that as soon as I could, at the age of seventeen, I left home and Kenny behind. Went away to college. Then moved to Chicago. Not running like Jacob to save my life. But, I suppose—like many young adults—running to find it.

When he was seventeen, Kenny ran too.

Describing and quantifying the sibling problem isn’t enough though. We have to dig a bit deeper to understand what it is all about. Why is it that these people—who usually know us the best—often bring out our worst?

Is it a jealous battle for our parents’ love? Jacob and Esau might have thought so. Joseph and his brothers too. Sigmund Freud certainly agreed. And he popularized this theory early in the last century.

In their 2009 book Nurture Shock, however, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman present a slightly different take. They claim that this understanding is incomplete, citing a survey on which siblings were asked to rank the reasons that they fight. “Possessions” was far and away first. While “parental affection,” actually, ranked dead last.

While they admit that siblings might not be aware of the deeper motivations behind their actions, Bronson and Merryman also cite Dr. Kramer. In her studies, she has seen that even in families where each child gets plenty of love from the parents, young siblings may fail to develop a healthy, positive relationship if they are never taught how. She concludes that an absence of relational guidance—rather than jealousy or competition—is the real cause of sibling rivalry. In other words, sibs often don’t get along because no one has shown them how.

And so Kramer has developed a sibling training program. “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers.”  Using games and activities and discussion, encouraging positive cooperative play and providing emotional coaching, Kramer hopes to transform children’s relationships “from sibship to something more akin to real friendship.”

In December of 1999, Kenny and his family flew to England for my wedding—with Peter and me and Mom and Dad. It was a huge and hard trip for everyone. But the wedding was like a fairytale.

A few days after the ceremony, Peter and I flew to Greece for a weeklong honeymoon. Ken and his family stayed in England with Mom and Dad and saw the sights. The plan was for us to meet them at Heathrow Airport and fly back to Chicago together. But as our flight from Athens was landing in London, the steward announced over the intercom: “Peter and Kelli Worrall, please see our agent for an important message.” I was sure that someone was dead.

When we finally deplaned and found a phone, we heard the story from Peter’s mum. The night before, Ken and his family and Mom and Dad had checked into a hotel near the airport. Mom and Dad had specifically requested a handicapped room. And by the grace of God, Ken and his family were in the room nextdoor.

That morning, Mom climbed into the dry bathtub—her habit since a slippery wet tub was hard for her to navigate. She sat down and struggled to turn on the tap. When she finally wrenched it on, scalding hot water came gushing out. She couldn’t turn it off. Couldn’t turn on the cold. Couldn’t jump out. She could only scream.

My dad, of course, was frantic and helpless. He could only make his wobbly way to the hotel room door. By the grace of God, my brother heard the screams and came running. As soon as Dad could let him in, Ken pulled Mom out of the tub, took her in his arms, and laid her on the bed. Saved her life. Her skin was falling off. Third degree burns on 8% of her body.

Peter and I met the rest of the family at the burn unit of the local hospital. The tiny waiting room became our home for the next several days. We spent hours talking to doctors, calling the States, negotiating with the insurance company, trying to fly Mom home for treatment. We also spent long, quiet, scary hours staring at the TV. In one of those moments, Ken looked over at me and asked the question, the bigger question, the one I had been too frightened yet to voice, “What are we going to do about Mom and Dad for the long haul?”

At the time, Mom and Dad lived in a retirement complex in Minnesota. They were able to get some of their meals in the dining hall and the occasional ride to the grocery store. But they were clearly going to need more help than that. Peter and I were in Chicago. Ken and his family in Tennessee. What were we going do? Ken and I were twenty-seven and thirty at the time. Young to be facing this question. But considering how prepared I felt, we might as well have been six and nine.

Ken’s question was the beginning of a twelve-year journey. A journey full of elaborate schemes and false starts. Brave moves and big mistakes. Moments of anger and moments of healing. Somehow we found our way. There was no one, big, dramatic scene. No huge turning point. No tearful reconciliation. It wasn’t like Esau, who ran to meet Jacob and hugged him and fell on his neck and kissed him. It wasn’t like Joseph, standing in front of his estranged brothers, unable to control himself, weeping so loudly that the Egyptians and the household of Pharaoh all heard. It was more like a million tiny moments of us working it out. Learning to talk. Learning to trust. Learning, finally, what it means to be brother and sister.

In August of 2005, Mom and Dad moved into This Old McHenry House with Peter and me. They had their own bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom on the main level. Everything was renovated to make it wheelchair accessible. And we were settling into a new way of life.

Ken came up from Tennessee for Christmas. And for Mom and Dad’s Christmas present, we planned a project. Together Ken and I gave their paneled bedroom a new plastered finish. Ken spread the joint compound, and I used the joint knife to add the texture. Ken rolled the paint, and I did the cutting in. Mom and Dad liked their new walls. But the real gift was us. Working together.

Two little sibs live in This Old McHenry House now. Though they share no blood and were born on opposite sides of the globe. Daryl’s adoption process took three years—working its way through the foster care system. Amelia’s adoption process took six. Our paperwork stuck in the logjam at the CCAA (China Center for Adoption Affairs).

However, by the grace and providence of God, their adoptions were both completed on the exact same day. March 26, 2012. On that day, we were in China at the US Consulate for our embassy appointment, obtaining Amelia’s passport so we could bring her home. And on that same day, a judge in Chicago was stamping our Judgment for Adoption papers, and Daryl became a Worrall. We say, siblings by divine design. But I suppose we all are.

That doesn’t mean that they always get along, of course. They are definitely siblings.

A few months ago I was putting away the laundry. Daryl and Amelia were playing on the floor. And Daryl was singing as he often does. This time it was the James Taylor ballad, “Our Town.”  It’s a part of the Cars movie soundtrack, so he knows all of the words. And he was singing with mournful conviction.

“Long ago, but not so very long ago, the world was different, oh yes it was.”

“Do you know why I’m singing that, Momma?” he asked.

“No, Daryl,” I said. “Why?”

“Because when Amelia came she changed the whole world,” he said. “And I didn’t really like it.”

So we had a little talk. A talk about sibs.

I would like more for my little sibling pair than I had with Ken back then. Truthfully, I’d like to control it. The bossy big sister still exists in me. I’d like to climb to the top of my laundry pile and just issue a decree. “Love each other. Be kind. Don’t take each other for granted. Be friends.”

But instead I get the hard job of teaching them every day what it took me too long to learn. Encouraging them to show mutual respect. To enjoy one another and their differences. To laugh together. To play together. To work out their problems in a mutually satisfying way. To stay connected no matter what.

As I think about these things tonight, I am standing at the top of my painting ladder. Brush in hand. We’ve just taken This Old McHenry House off the market. Our family is staying put for now. And I’m finally able to transform the old guest room into a more useful space. A playroom for the kids. A place for them to become sibs.

And so I paint. Charcoal and white horizontal stripes. A neutral space. Not his. Not hers. But theirs.

What was your sibling experience like?

How do you help your children learn to be friends?

13 thoughts on “Becoming Sibs

  1. Kelli,
    Once again your words have been woven together into a beautiful quilt square. I cannot wait to see the completed project with many different colored threads coming together to create a beautiful masterpiece.

    I read this post after having just spoken with one of my brothers. Thomas has been awaiting a kidney transplant for five years and as I spoke with him today my heart hurt a little for the long wait he has endured and for the continued wait before him. All of the issues of sibling rivalry are now just distant memories and dust in the corners and I am reminded how deeply grateful I am for my siblings.

    Keep pressing on my friend!

  2. Another wonderfully engaging post, really makes me think…
    Have the studies you’ve read discussed siblings far-apart in age? Ones that never played on the floor together, never shared toys because one had rattles and the other cassettes and teen magazines, never built the mutual fort in the living room…instead the combo where the poor little sib had an immediate “extra mother” and now as they approach mutual-ground in adult-life, how do they get to know each other? sometimes for what feels like the first-time.
    Thank you again for sharing this journey.

    1. Great questions, Allison. The sibling chapter in Nurture Shock doesn’t address it. Nor the chapter in Necessary Losses. However, I just came across another book called The Sibling Effect, which is a much more thorough study. I’m still going through it. So I’ll let you know if I find anything.

      Thanks for reading!


  3. I grew up 3rd of four kids to young, hard working parents. We were close in age, all born within 5 years. I remember my early life being hectic, busy and full of strife between us siblings. I was a selfish child. I remember thinking I wouldn’t have so many kids when I was a mom because it wasn’t fair that I had to share a Swiss roll snack with my brother. I remember yelling, “I hate you” over and over to my older brother one day. He knew how to push my buttons (and everyone else’s) like no one else! It wasn’t all screaming and yelling; there were thousands of good times and memories. But now we are all in our 30s, married with children. Growing up and becoming parents has bonded us in a special way. I love my brothers, but it is my sister I have become the closest with. She is my best friend, and I can’t imagine life without her! I’m thankful that my daughter’s have each other and pray that they will one day be as close as my sister and I.

    1. Thanks, Jill. Four kids under 5! Wow! I can’t quite imagine it. Button pushing was inevitable. It’s so nice to hear about the bond that you have with your sister now, though. I forget where she was in the line-up. The oldest? I love how the relationships mature over time. I’ve become sort of fascinated with sibling relationships after researching/thinking/writing about them these past few weeks.


      1. Yes, my sister is the oldest. It went girl-boy-girl-boy. I don’t remember her being your typical bossy oldest sibling, but we were also not very close at all growing up. In fact, I wasn’t really close with any of my siblings until after I left home. We had our moments of loving and caring for each other, but I didn’t understand or appreciate how other relationships come and go but family will always be there. My sister became my best friend when I moved to a new place and had no one else. She was there,a phone call away, ready to listen, encourage and pray with me. And praise God, she still is. 🙂

  4. As far as parenting goes, it’s hard to observe my children fighting. I am trying to teach them conflict resolution and how to be a kind thoughtful friend, but it is a long painful process. As much as possible I try to stay out of their disputes, give them time to figure out the solution themselves. Some days all they do is fight and for my own peace of mind I have to step in and put a stop to the bickering over and over and over again. Other days they play like best friends, or when they do fight and I’m just about to step in and play peacemaker, they resolve the conflict themselves. Those few moments are very rewarding. 🙂 its comforting to recall how much I fought with my siblings yet we are closer now then ever.
    Well written again, Kelli. You’ll have to keep me posted on things you do with D and A to encourage closeness.

    1. It is hard when they fight. And I completely agree–a long, painful process with glimpses of hope. One thing that was impressed on me from the research was how early the tone was set and how lasting it was. It has renewed my desire to be intentional about building positive memories and patterns for them now, and not just correcting the inappropriate behavior. All I’m trying to do right now is find, encourage, and facilitate activities that they enjoy together. Hence, the Bean Time picture on facebook. 🙂 Tonight I was cuddling both of them in our big bed. They were both having a hard time. Amelia was sick and scared of the humidifier. Daryl said he had a sad song stuck in his head… Anyhow…we were all three in the big bed for a few minutes. And while Daryl was whimpering, Amelia put her arm around him and said, “It’s ok, Daryl. I love you.” Those are the moments we treasure!

  5. What does someone, like myself, who has no siblings have to contribute to a post about siblings. I remember the quiet of a room in the mid-afternoon with no brothers or sisters around. My friends would talk about their brothers and sisters and I thought of them as disadvantaged. Isolation has its advantages. It gives you a chance to reflect on things a little and develop grand ideas. It gives you a chance to build Lego space ships and not have someone wreck them. It develops in your mind the idea that community is over-rated and even harmful. My father liked to withdraw, and my mother didn’t like to impose herself on others. I grew up with the idea that solitude and isolation were to be preferred.

    Of course, with no-one to develop friendships with and no-one to fight for attention with I developed social deficiencies of which I was unaware. How can you know what life in community is about if it is so far out of your experience? I had brothers and sisters of a spiritual nature at church, but you can maintain a facade and drive home at the end of the day. In fact, you can re-energize alone after expending your resources giving each person what they seem to want. However, what we all need is intimacy and vulnerability. It is in developing those things that we find joy.

    I believe God designed the family to be more than one child. I believe that we can do well with one, but the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command would only be possible if there were more. Maybe the story of Samson is also a warning against what it can look like to be raised by parents who have only one child to lavish all their resources upon. I never shared my parents’ affections with another. I felt the joy of all their attentions being lavished on me, but I also felt the weight of never being able to share the blame when the accusations went down the chain in much the same way they did at the time of the fall.

    Redemption for me has been hard. I find that I am not alone among only children in feeling awkward and resistant in sharing with a group of people what I struggle with and what I desire. I feel pain sometimes when I am in a group, just by virtue of being in a group and being constrained to be social. However, I find in the disclosure and the social interaction a move toward healing. I do not have to reconcile or work through conflict with a literal brother or sister bound to me by blood. I have to trust and work with strangers until they become the brothers and sisters I never had.

  6. That’s so neat that your children were adopted on the same day!! Our’s were, too, and they are not related biologically either (although they were both in foster care). It’s amazing to think that God chose these two completely unrelated children to be sibs… and I’m so glad they have each other.

  7. Quite the emotional wave to ride with this one, Kelli. 😉 So well written, and I’ll gladly ride that wave for that alone. I appreciate the way you tell stories.

    I was third of four girls in a religious home, but not following the God of the Bible. There are things I remember:

    A third child can grow passive caught in the fray and being so far down the line. It’s a snap decision on whether something is genuinely wanted and worth the effort. My experience reminds me of watching young robins in a nest, wide-mouthed and craning for the dangling morsel, all the while, peeping like mad for attention.

    My parents’ course of action was to remind us (and often make us repeat) that “Sisters are for loving.” Sigh. Can’t recommend that.

    My course of action with two boys? I prayed when I found out there would be two boys. I prayed for brotherly love before we ever met E. When I saw what “brotherly love” looked like with my own two eyes, I was a bit horrified (coming out of a “girl family”). I can still be a bit taken back. I still pray, first and foremost, for their relationship. Mainly, that prayer has been heard and honored, I believe, and I’m blessed. In the teachable moments, we try.

    The LOYL mentioned building Lego ships in peace. Well, that has been one of the things I’ve prayed and instructed on in the past. More than once. We talk about what it means to be a J____ family member, loving God, and loving others. We talk about giving our best to those we live with, too. (It’s easy to give your best to those you see for a short time, and then leave.) We “remember who we are” (as Lysa TerKeurst says). We are a family that loves God and wants to honor him. How we treat others is a very big part of that.

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