This story on the long term benefits of siblings from science writer Robin Marantz Henig on NPR recently grabbed my attention. Perhaps it was Thanksgiving and the recent push of additional family time, perhaps its moving back to Colorado and simply seeing my siblings more often than I used to, perhaps its watching my mom and her sisters navigate the challenges of caring for their aging parents together. Whatever it was, the story really struck a cord for me.
There are countless ways that my older brother in particular “rubbed off” on me in positive ways. As the article states, younger siblings improve cognition by imitating their older sibling. This was definitely true with my brother and I. Not only did he establish a positive reputation for our family name at school (he was always an exceptional student), I got to learn from his mistakes and improve on my approach to similar problems when my turn came. Admittedly, watching him crash our tractor when we were both probably too young to drive didn’t save me from crashing my first car…but it did teach me just the right swear words to throw out after the dust settled.
I was struck with another benefit of growing up with siblings. Henig writes, “They learn from the friction between them, too…Mild conflict between brothers and sisters teaches them how to interact with peers, co-workers and friends for the rest of their lives.” Indeed, my brother and I knew that if were were to maintain the independence we so cherished as children, we had to show our parents that we could work things out ourselves. This honed our early negotiation tactics and early games of trust building. Once we both had “dirt” on one another we’d quickly offer, “I won’t tell if you won’t tell!” sealing a pact of not-always-so innocent secrecy from our parents. However silly, these early deals (both those that survived and those that were broken) were clearly stepping stones to negotiations and trust-dependent agreements of much greater importance in the future.
Nostalgically looking back and appreciating the long-term benefits I gained from this relationship, I’m saddened by the reality of the ways many sibling relationships are challenged and even broken as families, and particularly their parents age. Henig writes, “This often happens when aging parents need care or die — old feelings of rivalry, jealousy and grief erupt all over again, masked as petty fights ostensibly over who takes Mom to the doctor or who calls the nursing home about Dad… And because of the particular intensity of sibling relationships, such conflict cuts to the bone. People grieve for the frayed ties to their siblings as though they’ve lost a piece of themselves.”
Given the many benefits of siblings (check out the full article HERE), I wish more adult siblings, particularly those facing challenges with aging parents together, would consider mediators as resources. A skilled mediator can not only help preserve (and strengthen) siblings throughout these challenges, they can help make space for the parents’ opinions too! With a mediator’s help, the whole family can work together to be hard on the problems of old age and be easier on one another too! Mediate.com has a nice selection of articles on elder mediation that talk more about this important tool for families.
As the rest of the holiday season continues to bring families together…and push them apart, consider the tools you have, right in your own community, to help preserve and protect those relationships.