Book review: The Sibling Effect

Posted on January 4, 2013 
Filed Under Anita, Book Review, The Star

By Anita Matthews

Published in Parenthots, The Star on November 12, 2012 as Learn about sibling relationships

What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us
By Jeffrey Kluger
Publisher: Riverhead Books

This book, by Jeffrey Kluger, opens like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller where he recalls the game of how he and his brothers hid the youngest in the fuse box. With the oldest at eight and youngest at four, the older boys had no idea of the danger they posed to the youngest. The following tale is about his father breaking into the house to deliver the divorce papers to his mum. Sibling Effect

On that premise, Kluger who is a senior editor and science writer at TIME magazine, takes his readers down memory lane with anecdotes of his childhood, growing up in a household of boys, a messy divorce, the extended family and the impact of his parents’ behaviour on how he and his brothers turned out.

Kluger’s book is an informative read as he examines the relationship between siblings – the disputes, jealousies, favouritism, the birth order, extended families, separation, sex, the teen years and more. He draws on scientific research, with every other page citing a finding or expert to rationalise or perhaps demystify the mysteries of siblinghood.

Tapping into behavioural science for insight may have reinforced Kluger’s argument but some of the findings are similar to stereotypes most adults (who grew up with siblings) would have been exposed to. For instance, the entire chapter on the first-born as the pampered prince or princess primed for leadership is backed by statistics. Common sense would agree that first-time parents and grandparents would surely pamper the first-born.

But Kluger takes it a step further by citing figures on how many first-born children have become presidents or chief executive officers or end up inheriting the family business. The figure, which is under 50%, did not tip the scales for me.

Therefore, I am not entirely convinced by some of scientific reasoning that Kluger posits. Somewhere out there in the future, some other finding is going to emerge to up-end it. For instance, Kluger is convinced that the first-born is the smartest and the degree of intelligence decreases with each descending sibling. Despite the science, it is hard to believe this as there are many families where the youngest child was not the wildest and the oldest had turned out to be the most aimless. What happened to intelligent first-born children?

Another instance is that the single child is a selfish one and although it has been disputed by experts, Kluger rallies with his argument. It is fair to say that not all of Kluger’s arguments are rock solid. If at all, the book is a memoir coated in science; a memoir of Kluger’s childhood and how he and his brothers knitted a tight bond that prevails to this day. Rain or shine, these boys meet annually at the Joe Allen restaurant in New York for a meal.

It is easier to ignore the science and focus on the stories that Kluger relates in the book. He openly discusses his relationship with his elder and younger brothers and how the boys banded as a team when their parents broke up. The boys leaned on each other and covered each other’s backs especially when they were faced with their father’s wrath or their mother’s drug dependency. These boys had parents but at the end of day, they raised each other and protected one another. Their parents divorce made them stronger.

While many experts have argued the detrimental damage of divorce on children, Kluger has found evidence to the contrary. If at all, divorce or any other family trauma, would strengthen the bonds between siblings. It is as though the siblings are a unit on one side with the squabbling parents on the other side. This is hopeful as unhappy couples should not stay together for the children’s sake as it is not in the best interest of the children.

Kluger is however spot on when he discusses how culture affects sibling relationships. Siblings thrive in cultures that are inclusive. Cultures that favour individualism are worse off. Conclusion: Culture and character shapes behaviour.

Readers can reflect their childhood as they thumb through the book. It would bring back fond and funny memories as it did with me. Of course, there is no shortage of angry memories, but this time, I understand why my brothers left me out when they were up to their trickery. They were equally jealous of me as I was of them.

Kluger also points out that sibling relationships are not all rosy. He cites psychologist Deborah Gold who studied adult sibling relationship. According to Gold, there are five categories: Intimate, congenial, loyal, apathetic and hostile. The degree of devotion diminishes from intimate to hostile.

All in all, the book is a fascinating peek into the intricacies and dynamics of human relationship. The information is useful and serves as a great guide on how to navigate relationships with people outside the immediate family – the in-laws, friends and colleagues.

Family sociologist Katherine Conger is quoted saying: “Siblings are our memory banks.” It is one memory bank I cherish. Here’s to my brothers: Basil, Cyril, David, Edwin and John who have my back as I have theirs.


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