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.
As 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?