The Sibling Effect

One of the first things people say when the number of children I have is brought up is, “Wow, you must be busy, how do you do that?  I have trouble with my two.”    My usual response is “Oh they entertain each other it isn’t so bad.”  This is usually met with a dubious look, the eyebrow cocking up a bit  to express a bit of doubt.

But it is true.  Though it is hard to explain in the short span of a quick conversation.  There is something that I dubbed “The Sibling Effect”  that comes into play when you have a larger family.

Ashley and Sarah
Ashley(18) and Sarah(4)

Basically, the sibling effect is a result of each child being somewhat less the “center of the universe” and slightly more part of “team Family” than the normal American child.   Mom and Dad switch from being the people in charge of giving the child everything they want to “the bosses” and siblings are less competition for family resources and more fellow team members.

The Changes:  My first two children are 18 months apart.  When Rachel was born Ashley was excited to be the Big Sister – she would fetch diapers and hold things and watch the baby.  This went on right up to the point that baby sister started getting into her stuff, then baby wasn’t as much fun, in fact she was down right annoying.

By the time Christopher came around Ashley had more or less gotten over the fact that little siblings will get into your stuff.  This baby wasn’t quite as exciting as the first new sibling, but being helpful when you are 7 is still a thrill.  Plus Ashley was now old enough to hold the baby, make the baby laugh and understand more of what was involved.   There was also a fellow “victim” with the annoying aspects of older sibling life.

I suspect four children will definitely create the sibling effect and maybe three depending on the parenting style and how close in age the children are, but once the dynamic is created it changes the parent/child dynamic and creates a very different sense of family.

Among our community of larger, homeschooling, Catholic families one of the things I notice most is how open the older children in the group are to watching out for the younger ones – not just their siblings, but all the children in the group.

3 thoughts on “The Sibling Effect

  1. This is one of the things so many people notice about my sister’s 9 children. It seems the siblings are always slightly aware of one another and watchful for other small children. They are always ready to lend a hand to their siblings or any other small child that needs help. Not that they never argue, they do, but if for instance 1 sibling is getting in the van and drops something the other sibling will not even hesitate to bend over and pick it up for them. If one of the “littles” is struggling to get shoes on an older sibling will, without being asked, sit down and help. Seldom have I seen one get a snack and not offer one to any siblings in the vicinity. If it wasn’t for other children this would seem to be a normal behavior; however when compared to the average family or tv family this behavior is extraordinary.

  2. Well. I have absolutely no experience as an only child or raising only children Ashley and Rachel are so close together (17 months). So, with the understanding that I know less about this topic than the usual “not much” that I know about most things that I pontificate on, my thoughts would be this:

    Family dynamics always matter more than family composition. If you have five siblings but your parents are out-to-lunch, on drugs, suffering from mental illness or just way overwhelmed, it can be a curse instead of a blessing. Likewise an only child with wonderful support structures can be better off in ways than the child of a “typical” large family.

    Siblings can be a lifelong gift. I see this in my own family in the relationships between my grandparents and parents and their sibling and it is confirmed in my own experience. Friends come and friends go – some of them have been around 30+ years, but I know no matter what happens my brothers are there.

    My father is an only child (a state he has both praised and complained of) and he has taken the time to invest in lifelong friendships that are as close to him as brothers – but there is a difference.

    I think parenting an only child, especially when they are young would be very different than parenting the little herd. I imagine it requiring a great deal more “floor” time. Which is by no means a bad thing, but one the hardest things for me with parenting is the stepping back and letting go part – I project it would be much worse for me if I had only one child to parent. The lines between parent and playmate/mentor/friend/disciplinarian would be harder navigate.

    My only other thought on it would be one of motivation. If an only child is an only child because God blessed a family with one, then that is not something I would ever question – not that it would ever be my place to question someone else’s family composition, but hopefully the reader understands what I am saying.

    The Holy Family springs to mind as an example of what practicing Catholics normally don’t aspire to: the only child with the step-father is not exactly your typical “good Catholic family”. But if the reason for limiting a family to one is something more material, something born of despair or fear then it feels like a sad option, a limiting of love. It might seem wrongheaded of me, but if I am to be faulted I would rather be faulted for abundance than scarcity.

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