NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PEACEMAKING IN LARGE FAMILIES
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
(NOTE: This article is adapted from Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group).
It’s no surprise that siblings in a large family often have quite different experiences from those in a small one.
In a large family, the first and last children have special roles. But, if you look closely, so do the middle children. Gender and age differences, along with temperament, can make for unique roles for each child and distinct relationships among siblings.
Large-family siblings must become self-reliant – while relying on each other and managing many relationships simultaneously. They learn about themselves from the others.
The siblings know they are a group and pride themselves on it. When rivalry surfaces, the group either handles it or shoves it underground. At times, though, pride in the pack may be balanced by other feelings: “I get so sick of my brothers and sisters. They’re always around. I wish I could be on my own.”
Others may quickly long to reunite with their siblings. This feeling partly depends on how parents guide their children’s interactions and individuality.
We know a woman, now in her 50s, who was the fifth of eight children, and the only girl: “Daddy made sure we all were at dinner together every night. We went around the table and he asked each of us about our day. Each of us had this time to be special to him.
”When one of us got in trouble, we all paid the price. If it was one kid’s fault, sure we’d be mad. But only for a little while, because we all knew that it could have been any of us. So we’d always stick up for each other. That was what Daddy wanted. “
She and her brothers still live within a few miles of each other. At Christmas, more than 100 children, grandchildren and cousins gather at her father’s house.
One child in a big family may call up a parent’s own memories and experiences, which can become the child’s way of attracting special attention – good or bad.
My wife was a third daughter. She identified with our own third daughter. The other children recognized it: ‘‘you treat her so special.‘` To me the treatment didn’t seem obvious. But a bond linked mother and daughter, left over from the past.
Often each sibling has a favorite in the family – based on gender, temperament, birth order or other factors. Favorites single each other out for help and confidences.
When one sibling is emotionally unstable or difficult for peers to accept, siblings in a large family may try to fill the gap. Siblings often connect strongly to such a child and have an uncanny understanding of his needs.
The parent of a 3-year-old with autism always brought an older sibling with him to my office: ”He’ll do things for his brother that he won’t do for me or you. “
Such a channel may not exist. When a child is always on the sidelines and routinely made a scapegoat, parents should seek professional help for him.
FRIENDS AND RIVALS
Sibling rivalry may seem to submerge under the daily hubbub – but it hasn’t vanished. The rivalry in large families may be just as intense as in small ones. Rivalry may even be magnified if the other siblings take sides. The meltdowns are just as disruptive, but when only two siblings are involved, other family members may not pay much attention.
Sometimes two siblings may tease and torture each other so mercilessly that parents have no choice but to step in and break the headlocks.
If the other children have not taken sides, the parents can more easily separate the adversaries and set them to tending chores with a different sibling.
CALMING THE RIVALRY IN LARGE FAMILIES
- Maintain perspective. Be mindful of the closeness and mutual dependence beneath sibling struggles.
- Watch for the nurturing that the older ones have learned from you. Praise them for it.
- Try to make a special time for each child once a week, a ”date“ with one parent or the other, when nothing can interfere. The time need not be long – but keep the promise.
- Regular family meals bring everybody together – without the television.
- Plan family meetings to share ideas, gripes and rewards. Lay out the family chores and let each child choose one.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.