After 23 years of marriage, I still wonder why my husband ever asked me on a second date. The first time we went out for dinner and conversation, Mike discovered one of my most embarrassing faults: I was incapable of finishing a sentence. My poor communication skills had their basis in my childhood. I was one of three children in a boisterous Italian family. My brothers – one younger than I, one older – were high-strung types who had no patience with the niceties of polite conversation. So when my family sat down to our evening pasta, the conversation was pretty much a string of interrupted sentences delivered at high volume. No wonder I couldn’t complete a thought, much less express one.
My own experience reflects what recent studies have proven: siblings influence the person you are. In its cover story on “The New Science of Siblings” (July 10, 2006), Time magazine reported that siblings are for one another valuable “rehearsal tool(s) for later life.” Through their day-to-day interactions, they acquire skills that will serve them well in marriage, in the workplace, and in the neighborhood. Sibling relationships teach the art of negotiation (I’ll take over your chores today if you drive me to the movies tonight”), peacemaking (“Okay, you can have the game for now; I’ll play with it later”), and compromise (“We can each spend twenty minutes on the computer”).
The value of sibling relationships is constant, regardless of family size. But how do these factors play out in a large family like mine, where nine siblings all share one house, a pair of parents, and a grand total of two bedrooms?
The interactions that take place between nine individuals in varying stages of emotional and physical development are necessarily complex. The different personalities in my family – a wallflower and a center-stager, an optimist and a malcontent, a nurturer and a loner, a scholar and a naturalist, plus a four-year-old spitfire – comprise a motley group in which tempers and tendencies are as changeable as a summer sky. Naturally, conflicts are bound to occur. But clashing personalities learn to coexist, if not peacefully, then at least without much bloodshed.
Grace is an ungilded lily with an aversion to cosmetics and a preference for LAN to glam. Clare loves to preen, paint, and polish. Early morning encounters between the two could be as heated as a hotcake griddle, with Grace disdainfully tossing Clare’s toiletries into her section of the bedroom, and Clare griping about the loss of sleep caused by the late night glow of Grace’s laptop. The sisters’ incompatibility was no secret, and it seemed almost as though they would flaunt their differences when in each other’s company. For a while, the flare-ups were frequent and fiery. But, over time, the demands of big family living increased so much that the girls learned to set aside their differences and cooperate. They had to share a bedroom, because space was limited. They had to do kitchen chores together, because cooking for a crowd and hand-washing eleven place settings afterwards called for teamwork. Grace had to drive Clare to work because I was driving her siblings elsewhere, and Clare had to help Grace with the laundry because there was so much of it.
Yes, Grace still complains that the scent of Clare’s perfume spoils her appetite. Yes, Clare still grumbles that Grace’s “real time strategy” CD-ROMs are always strewn about the study. But, like celebrity pairs before the paparazzi, the girls have lately been caught enjoying their time together. And when Grace is demonstrating her prowess on Starcraft for Clare’s entertainment, or Clare is seen showing Grace her pencil sketch of a baroque-style bridal gown …well, it’s front page news, indeed!
But regretfully, the art of designing wedding gowns is easier than the art of negotiation. Take the case of the Two Territorial Females. While big sisters Grace and Clare were having it out over Grace’s sleep-disrupting laptop light, Rose’s slumber was being disturbed by a magazine cutout gallery (132, at last count) of photogenic felines, including bald, baggy-skinned Sphinx cats and tailless Manx looking down on her at night. Worse, the pictures put there by Helen, resident cat fancier and avant-garde decorator, were creeping into Rose’s designated space, which was already occupied by images of St. Cecilia, St. Therese, and Blessed Pier Giorgio. To accommodate the overflow of cute, and not so cute, kitty pix, Rose hung beside Helen’s bed a string of plastic links with clothespins attached. (Tip: This is a nifty solution for kids who like to arrange and re-arrange pictures. It eliminates the possibility of wall paint being peeled away by tape.) Clare then helped Rose to establish her own computer account, and showed her how to set up a rotating gallery of saints images downloaded from the internet. Bonus: the ever-changing assortment of beautiful pictures inspires other family members, too.
If the opportunities for dispute in a large family are endless, so are the chances for camaraderie and self-sacrifice. Among my boys, camaraderie displays itself in varied and interesting ways. Recently Vincent floored me with a comment that I’d never expected to hear.
“There’s no one for me to play with,” he said. (‘Say what?’) He went on to explain: “I like to wrestle with Dominic because he’s almost my size. But he always wants to read a book instead of wrestle. It’s so annoying!”
To Dominic, camaraderie meant trading limericks or knock-knock jokes. To Vincent, camaraderie consisted in giving his brother a few bruises. But over time, each stopped trying to convince the other that his pastime preference was “better,” and instead came to accept, and even value, the other’s individuality. Noted Vincent appreciatively, “If I were as calm as Dominic, I’d probably get into a lot less trouble!” Fortunately, although being as “calm as Dominic” is an unattainable goal for quick-tempered Vincent, young Gerard’s bruising capabilities are such that it won’t be long before Vincent has an in-house wrestling buddy after all. (Big Family Fact: It’s only a matter of time before you end up with a sibling who shares your interests.)
When it comes to self-sacrifice, the large family is the perfect training ground. Often, the practice of self-denial is exercised in mundane ways, such as by allowing your little sister to have the last Klondike bar on a sultry August afternoon. But there are myriad opportunities for noble deeds on a larger scale. Certainly, it’s a rare family that hasn’t had to occasionally “go without” in order to manage a strained budget, and naturally, the financial burdens increase along with the number of children.
A couple of four-digit auto repair bills, a series of plumbing problems, and an unexpected hospitalization all contributed to a recent financial setback for our own family. (Gentle Reader, what’s the first thing you would do? Hold a family council, of course!) Mike gathered everyone for a little talk on the importance of good stewardship and the virtue of frugality, then canvassed the group for suggestions on ways to save money. I proposed that more laundry be washed by hand, and electric dryer usage be replaced by line-drying.
Grace wanted to know if I was kidding. Ben said he was glad that he’d soon be returning to college, as Stone Age living didn’t appeal to him. The younger boys offered to save on laundry costs by changing their clothes just once a week. “And we can sleep in them, too!” volunteered Dominic gleefully.
It was Clare’s comment that took us by surprise.
“Would we save enough money to let Dominic keep taking violin lessons?” she asked thoughtfully. “Because if we would, then I’ll do all the hand washing and clothes-hanging.”
Clare’s willingness to take on a tedious, time-consuming chore for her brother’s sake was a lovely example of self-denial. Its significance wasn’t lost on Helen, who later observed, “I sort of like it when things go wrong, because everybody starts acting really nice.” (Implying, I guess, that everyone’s behavior under normal circumstances leaves something to be desired!)
The efficacy of siblings as a refining force can’t be overrated. Where Mom and Dad’s efforts at cultivating virtue have failed, the siblings in our family have succeeded. Witness this actual exchange between my optimist and my malcontent, overheard on a car trip back from Grandma’s:
O: (sigh) “I just love this.”
M: (with the hint of a sneer) “Love what?”
O: (dreamily) “Oh, you know…everything.”
M: (with a fully developed sneer) “Everything? You mean, like spinach, and headaches, and math, and bee stings, and…”
O: “No, I mean I love this. Riding in the car, and thinking about the fun visit
we had, and looking out the window at the purple sunset…”
M: “That’s not purple.” (Squinting a bit) “Well, maybe it is sort of purple. But it’s more like – what’s that color – magenta or something?”
O: “Mmm, I think so. Or I guess you could just call it pinkish-reddish-purplish.”
M: “It’s easier to call it magenta. (Pause.) Look! Serious clouds!”
O: “You mean cirrus clouds.”
M: “Well, whatever. But, yeah…it really is a nice sunset.”
Lectures on gratitude had fallen on deaf ears. Writing assignments – “In all things give thanks, for this is the will of God,” fifty times in cursive – did little more than improve his penmanship. But a few minutes spent looking through the appreciative eyes of his brother taught my son a lesson in thankfulness.
What about the mom who shows a preference for her sunset-loving boy? Or the dad who goes out of his way to spend time with his tough-guy son? How does this affect the siblings of the “favorites,” and how can parents deal with associated feelings of guilt?
“All children have different needs,” says Wendy Krisak, private practitioner and Assistant Director of Counseling at DeSales University. “Parents may need to show a little extra care to one child over another. Some research shows that many children actually understand when their parents have to treat siblings differently.” Parents who feel guilty about the disparity should reflect on the reasons for it. Says Krisak, “Parents often don’t even know how much or how little time is being given to each child because it is so interrupted by daily happenings in the household.” Since the odds of having a high needs child are greater in a large family, and the sheer number of “daily happenings” can be staggering, favoritism may be harder to avoid. Recently this became an issue for Vincent, two of whose siblings had – for reasons both good and bad – been garnering most of Mom’s attention. Vincent was feeling neglected, and the usual cheering-up tactics weren’t working. So I invented a holiday which all family members were required to observe: “Vincent Appreciation Day.” The honoree was ceremoniously led to a cushy sofa, where he was given a plump pillow, a stack of “Calvin and Hobbes” comic books, a plate of snacks, and a little bell to ring to call his “subjects” (i.e. siblings) for service. Silly? Maybe so, but all the attention really did make Vincent feel loved and appreciated. An unforeseen benefit was a genuine increase in affection for Vincent from his siblings, which lingered after the “holiday” had ended. (I think of it as the “Whistle a Happy Tune” effect.)
But as every parent knows, affection between siblings waxes and wanes. And when it’s on the wane, the domestic church can become a domestic combat zone. Imagine a fracas in the family room, a quarrel in the kitchen, and a brawl in the bedroom…all running concurrently. If, as clinical psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi says, “chronic sibling quibbling” is normal, then “normalcy” in a large family can drive a parent to the brink. I used to be one of those parents. Striving to be a conscientious mother, I’d always try to get to the bottom of whatever squabble was taking place in the room in which I stood. I had to figure out “who started it,” or “who had it first,” or “who was settling the score.” Unfortunately, the final score was always the same: Squabblers, 1; Mom, 0; Tylenol, 2 Extra-Strength.
“Parents shouldn’t play detective by sorting out arguments,” says Dr. Guarendi, father of ten and author of “Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime.” “But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get involved.” According to Dr. Guarendi, “Parents have been misled into thinking that siblings should be left to work out conflicts on their own.” This is a recipe for trouble, he says, and can amount to parental permission for kids to mistreat each other. Instead, “parents should set boundaries”. And it isn’t enough to draw the line at, say, kicking or punching. With limits like that, “what’s to keep them from name-calling, or worse? It is important that family members show respect toward one another. That means that the smallest snotty remark should not be permitted.”
It has been noted that large amounts of time spent exclusively in the company of one’s peers can be detrimental to a child’s social development. This tends to be less of a problem in large families, where siblings must interact on a daily basis with multiple personalities at various levels of maturity. The regular exposure to human vagaries in the formative years develops interpersonal skills that might otherwise remain dormant.
Seventeen-year-old Leo’s rather fluid personality has, I believe, been molded mainly by interaction with his siblings. When Leo is hanging with laid-back Ben, for example, he’s a carefree kid; when with erudite Grace, Leo transmogrifies into an earnest youth with Serious Ideas. In debates with Vincent, Leo can be maddeningly contrary, but he is as meek as a geek when Gerard demands to have his own way. Leo’s chameleon-like shifts in behavior – besides being lots of fun at parties – allow him to adapt easily to social situations outside the home, and help him to avoid the awkwardness that’s typical of teenagers.
One of the more interesting passages of the “Time” article describes the phenomenon of de-identification, the process by which siblings differentiate themselves from one another. Take, for example, a teenage boy and his adolescent brother. Are all of the older boy’s energies directed toward “making it” as a grunge rocker? Don’t be surprised if the younger brother sets his sights on medical school. If the oldest girl in the family is a peacemaker, her 11-year-old sister may distinguish herself as a rebel.
These self-made personas can, I’ve learned, serve siblings well after they leave the nest. During my own childhood, I decided to be the calming force in my family. Admittedly, it was something of a struggle, since I too carried the genes that made my brothers so impetuous. But I still managed to acquire a measure of that blessed serenity that, three decades later, has helped me through more than a few family crises.
What really tests my “mellow mom” persona are the daily “trials and tribs of mothering sibs.” Self-doubt is one bugaboo that can make me feel like Auntie Mame, wondering whether she did a good job in raising her nephew: “Did he need a stronger hand/ Did he need a lighter touch/ Was I soft or was I tough/ Did I give enough/ Did I give too much?” In moments when my confidence falls flatter than Kansas, the Mellow Mom persona presents a cool and self-assured image to my family. I’d never have guessed that the thorny sibling relationships of my childhood would one day make me a more effectual parent!