The joy of siblings

Shannon Roberts
April 4, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

Reflecting on changes to China's one child policy has often meant discussing the effects of a one-child family. Even after the recent change to a 'two child policy', Chinese couples overwhelmingly continue to choose to have only one child. The policy has become culturally engrained. While mothers the world over want to do as much for their children as they can, it is so easy in a materialistic culture to fall into thinking that goods mean everything and having the best of everything will somehow produce a happier child and a happier you. From anecdotal experience, I think this mentality of expense and provision has a lot to do with why China is overwhelmingly sticking with one child.

However, one quickly learns as a parent how uninterested children are after five minutes in their inevitable mountains of toys and, babies and toddlers at least, are hardly concerned with keeping up with high fashion (it was almost more stress than it was worth buying my three year old a beautiful new t-shirt the other day which he promptly covered in mud whilst escaping to go "digging" in our church garden). This mother was even driven to take away all her childrens' toys because she was concerned too much "stuff" was affecting their ability to be contented and happy with the little things in life and to make their own fun.

When I had my second child I experienced an overwhelming sadness for my first child. I try to take the emotions felt in the first week of having a new baby with a grain of salt because you are not yourself. Nevertheless your emotions are still real, and mine were of overwhelming sadness for my first little boy suddenly seeing me constantly holding someone new! I was even moved in that first overwhelming week to wonder whether it would really be best to concentrate all ones love and affection onto one child. How could I now find enough quality time to spend with this beautiful second child with a just-turned-two-year-old demanding all my time?

In any case that little baby, Henry, is now 16 months. I have worried about my older child Thomas not sharing with him, being too rough with him, being too loud around him, and a host of other things. Yet, Thomas remains Henry's idol. This is obviously not due to Thomas' philanthropic qualities; there must be something else inherent in the sibling relationship that makes Henry so absolutely adore him and gain so much joy from his older brother. Henry always wakes up first and every morning he introduces Thomas as he walks into the kitchen. He sits with his chubby legs falling from his highchair and with a sweep of his arm and a loud carrying voice as if introducing an actor onto a stage says "Brother" with a big smile. His idol has arrived. (He said the word "brother" before he said mum!)

For his part, Thomas has been forced to learn to share and practice a range of other virtues that we may have never had cause to teach him had he remained an only child. As Henry gets older, they are also starting to have fun together, more often playing silly games and digging side by side in their sandpit. I know their relationship will continue to grow, and can see that another sibling would only add to the fun, play and development they are able to experience within our family unit. While our family is by no means perfect, how can one teacher with twenty to thirty children for 60 minutes (2 to 3 minutes per child of individual attention) even at the most expensive private school possibly compete with this life experience and little support network through life? In a child's mind, the best clothes and toys can't compete either. Many Chinese only children also report feeling almost crushed by the pressure of parental expectation.

An opinion piece in The Guardian last week discussing the human genome project and recent pyschological research aptly opined that:

Politicians often play on our desire to improve children's material circumstances. If only we could see that once a basic level of material security has been achieved, it is far more important to pass love and playfulness down the generations than property, or stocks and shares.

Writer Jeffrey Kluger observed to Salon in 2011 after his book "The Sibling Effect" was published that:

Siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you'll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life … Your parents leave you too soon and your kids and spouse come along late, but your siblings know you when you are in your most inchoate form.

Further to this point, Frank Bruni insightfully wrote in The New York Times a couple of years ago:

I'm also convinced that having numerous siblings helps. If you're let down by one, you can let off steam with another. "There's always someone else to turn to," said George Howe Colt, the author of "Brothers," a 2012 book about brothers through history and about his own three siblings, all male.

"It's like a treasure chest: you have access to a lot of different personalities," Colt told me. "With my brothers, I turn to them all. But I turn to them for different things."

Those comforts are manifold, at least in my lucky experience. With siblings to help shoulder the burden of your parents' dreams and expectations, you can flail on a particular front with lower stakes and maybe even less notice. Siblings not only pick up the slack but also act as decoys, providing crucial distraction.

They're less tailored fits than friends are ... And yet a reunion with them thrills him more than a reunion with friends, who don't make him feel that he's "a part of a larger quilt," he said. His brothers do.

My friend Campbell, who's as fond of her two sisters as I am of my siblings, put it this way: "With a friend, I have to be more articulate. With my sisters, I can be my most primal self: inarticulate, childishly emotional. I'll have a fight with my sister and say, 'O.K., I know we're in a fight, but I need your advice on something,' and we can just put the fight on hold. They're the only people in the world you can be your worst self with and they'll still accept you."

Every family is unique and works within its own circumstances to achieve the greatest good for its members. However, the benefits of siblings are so immense that hopefully Chinese parents are able to break out of the one child mentality forced on them for so long, and families around the world continue to recognise the benefits of a family network. Even as life seems ever busier and women more often struggle to balance career and family life, the best things in life often come from what can sometimes seem like a hard sacrifice at the time.