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Sibling Rivalry is a Triple-Edged Sword

March 28, 2017, Thursday 7 April 2011.

The Milliband siblings

It’s a long time ago now and the world is a very different place, but does anyone remember the 2011 newspaper photograph of the hugging brothers, David and Edward Milliband (above)? Their congratulatory embrace occurred  just after the younger Edward defeated David in the election for leader of the British Labour party.

There is something admirable about the Milliband brothers’ generous gesture of sibling support – the older David so gracious in defeat after they had fiercely competed with each other for the esteemed position.  Sure, Ed and Dave would have had their moments, as most siblings do. Yet, when it mattered most, they displayed nothing but fidelity.

The complicated relationship

And so it is with many siblings. While many parents sometimes feel like tearing their hair out over their children’s rivalry, they would also admit that their sworn-enemy offspring are, like Dave and Ed, sometimes the most committed of allies. By nature, sibling rivalry is a double-edged sword.

Sibling rivalry often means that parents are dammed if they do (try to make peace) and burnt at the emotional stake if they don’t. Settling sibling rivalry successfully requires the wisdom of a biblical Solomon and a modern Mandela. It can drive parents crazy, cause rifts between them and riddle them with guilt. It can make a well-scripted attempt at a warm, cozy family experience turn into an event from hell, and a few minutes later, from heaven.

“What’s up with the paradox?” baffled parents often ask. To answer this, I include a third edge to the sword – what parents can do to support sibling peace. That’s because with humans, there’s seldom nature without nurture.

It’s nature and nurture, as usual

It’s nature

Evolutionary psychologists argue that sibling rivalry is an outcome of evolution – it’s hardwired into the human brain. From this perspective, it’s an inherited paradox. On the one hand, it can be explained as an expression of an innate drive for resources: a genetically determined instinct for survival. The more parental attention, the more survival. Attenuating this is a genetically driven propensity for sibling loyalty, in the name of kin-selection, as in “I am my sibling’s keeper.”

And, it’s nurture

But the rivalry is also inextricably related to the environment in which it plays out. This is the third edge of the sword – the nurture side. On this edge balances the idea that sibling rivalry can be somewhat tamed, but containment demands considerable and enduring parental resources.

More about Edge 1: The inherited conflict

From an evolutionary biologist’s point of view, humans are gene carrying primates who have evolved to get their genes into the next generation. Once they are successful, they are usually determined to ensure that their children survive equally well so that they can continue the species through their grandchildren. To do this, parents must invest substantial resources in their children.  One new parent exclaimed, “OMG! I never realised it was this full on!”

And when and if she has another one, she’ll notice that it gets more complicated. She’ll have to divvy up her finite resources between her kids; a demand that reduces her investment in each of her children. By contrast, each of her children will be wired to want a hundred percent of her attention and support because they have their own genes to look after. Siblings are therefore driven to compete for the biggest slice of the parental cake. When fortune happens to smile on them, their cake  fight is about competition for parental attention rather than food for survival.

The competition for parental attention is a powerful force in sibling rivalry, so much so that even negative attention will do. In order to attract it, each child can mold their genetic predisposition into a limelight-grabbing stereotype. For example, in many families that I see, the child with the  bad-boy/girl reputation plays out a role under spotlight of negative attention, and though it’s not great, it’s better than nothing. Goody-2-shoes also manages to find the spotlight, but a positive one. And then there are the Lost-1’s who would like the attention but because they might be less demanding by nature, they tend to fall just under their parents’ radar. Take Z for example, a character in the movie, Antz: I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother never had time for me. You know, when you’re – when you’re the middle child in a family of five million, you don’t get any attention.

The problem is, then, that evolution has tinkered parents to want to share their resources equally but tinkered each child to want more for him/herself. If this is depressing, a consoling thought is that we’re not the only animals with the cake-sharing problem. Throughout the animal kingdom there are examples of the “injustice” pout. For example, among fledgling birds, the one that cheeps the loudest and strongest is usually fed first. Hence, the early morning twitter may be interpreted as a cacophony of shrill shrieks, crying ‘Feed me first! Unfair!’

Similarly, in my office accusations of injustice often spin parents into a swirl of defensive explanations. Unfortunately, when it comes to sibling rivalry, parental pleas for understanding usually fall on deaf ears. And, as with adults, children keep tabs on the perceived injustices.

Nature and nurture:  fair but not equal

As mentioned, while children might be similar in a number of ways , their unique predispositions and environmental experiences reinforce their unique differences. Therefore, while parental favours need to be distributed fairly, they cannot be offered equally. The differences are in the details:  age for a start.  Dave might have a later bedtime because he’s older, Ed might need more help with homework. Yet despite the parental effort at the fair but uneven distribution of their resources and the clear logic in it, children often continue to cry foul.

More about Edge 2: The kinship paradox

The fair but different portions of parental attention often garner sibling resentment. It follows that sometimes or often siblings don’t like each other. Yet, ultimately, they can be mutually supportive. Evolutionary psychologists explain that this is because they share the same number of genes with each other as they do with their parents, and more than they do with any other living human. Therefore, as far as genes go, the gene- carrying full sibling has an interest in the survival of his/her brother or sister, even if it is only to ensure the survival of some shared genes. Despite the rivalry, then, siblings have an interest in each other’s survival, even if it is just a genetically motivated one.

The shared-gene devotion is known in the literature as kin selection, and it forms the other side of the rivalry sword. It’s the rounder, gentler side and the one reflected in the Milliband brothers’ expansive hug.  The concept of kin selection in evolutionary psychology is expressed day to day as loyalty. To this extent, siblings have a powerful capacity to protect each other. So, kinship can explain the apparent paradox: siblings tend to protect each other despite their competitive edge.  Sure, the devotion is fragile; the kinship side of the sword is easily blunted by jealousy and betrayal, and conflicts of interest like loyalty to a wife’s needs over loyalty to a sibling. But overall, the double edge exists. When it comes to the crunch, not all but most siblings are each others’ keepers.

On loyalty and betrayal

It is perhaps because siblings often have a sense that they are their brothers’ keepers that betrayals and injustices are so easily perceived and jealousies cut so deep.  Take my recent client, 11 year old Josh, for example. In my office he immediately and vociferously noticed that his mum had two photographs of  his younger brother, Paul, on her iPad wallpaper, but only one of him. The perceived inequality, the bias, the favouritism – translated as a betrayal. “Not fair!” he cried with a pout.

Perceived disloyalties, in turn, invite moral indignation and a desire for revenge. Josh’s payback: A protracted silent sulk, a refusal to comply with his mum’s requests, and a sustained, threatening grimace at Paul.

More about Edge 3: Development is environment

Getting one’s genes into the next generation was never meant to be easy. “How come nobody told us?” asked Josh’s somewhat demented mum, who fears that she may lose a sibling war that she never knew she’d have to fight. I chuckled, “Well, if we got it before we had kids, it could mean the end of the species.”  She thought about it, and then laughed.

“But”, I added, “before despair there is hope.”  The hope lies in the third side of sibling rivalry’s triple edged sword and it is perhaps the most important edge for her to consider. It relates to the fact that humans have the unique ability to learn from social experiences.

Learning to live in peace – Nature can help

Siblings can learn to co-operate without conscious attention to the lessons learned. Usually this occurs because there are natural  deterrents to sibling rivalry: emotional memories like guilt and embarrassment, and also recollections of the actions that caused the emotions. There are also the positive emotions inherent in sibling peace that increase it’s likelihood. These derive from activities like integrated play and parental rewards and praise. There’s nothing for parents to do here – evolution has taken care of this part. But, when natural deterrents are insufficient, how exactly do parents mediate for peace in the home?

Learning to live in peace – Nurture is necessary

Well, what might Mr and Mrs Milliband have done to foster their sons’ apparent devotion? Here are 11  highly assumptive hypotheses on their parenting.

Perhaps, beginning when Ed and Dave were toddlers, Mr and Mrs Milliband may have:

1. supported nature by teaching their children to control their emotions, even the intense emotions that promote sibling rivalry, like revenge. Importantly, they might have role modeled self regulation. Had Mrs Milliband been a screamer, she wouldn’t have had a mediator’s leg to stand on. The power of role modelling emotional regulation is intuitively logical and well researched.

2.  cooperated with each other on scripting the structure for their children’s behavior. Their explicit framework for behavioural boundaries would have coincided with their family values and social conventions. Importantly, they might never have had to make bizarre sibling rivalry decisions on the back foot, like one of my favourites: “You’re both grounded for the rest of the year!”

3. agreed with each other on non-negotiable consequences for sibling aggression. Maybe they understood that children are likely to be  discouraged from sibling aggression when the consequences override the sweetness of revenge. And, they would have been even-handed when they applied the explicit rules for sibling cooperation. For example, the older David might have had a longer time-out period than the younger Ed.

4. explicitly communicated to their children the terms and conditions – their expectations –  for sibling co-operation. Perhaps they believed that younger children are poorly prepared to manage the decisions and therefore it was important that the structure was donated rather than arbitrated.

5. been aware of a critical tenet in democracy – innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, they  probably knew that until they had reliable evidence, the jury should stay out. For instance, they would not presume that  Bad-boy, say Ed, for example, would be guilty by reputation. How would Ed have reacted to such a perceived injustice? Probably by showing a lot more of Bad-boy Ed!

6. known that in the absence of an objective observer, it was useless to ask either Dave or Ed for an eye-witness account. While nobody would (hmmm…) consciously lie, the account would reflect a distortion coloured by a kaleidoscope of past resentments and alliances. Truth is the first casualty of [sibling] war[1]. Even Goody-2-shoes, say, David, would be liable to see things through his emotionally tinted lens.

And, in the attempt to settle matters in the absence of proof, the Millibands would not  inevitably betray Ed while showing loyalty to Dave.

7.  reprimanded both boys appropriately in the knowledge that things are fair but not equal.  In so doing, they would have created new territory in which the ‘enemy of my enemy’ must logically be my friend. For example, Dave and Ed might have reinforced their kinship ties over the shared belief that their parents were at fault.  “She has no wite to put us in our woom!” I once heard my two year old announce to her four year old sister, after their skirmish.  “No right!” the 4 year old concurred! Peace was made through the agreement that I was the antagonist.

While not always good for parents in the short-term, the even-handed reproach encouraged sibling peace. In the long-term, the strategy is perceived as impartial and therefore more acceptable than unjust and divisive presumptions of guilt and innocence.

8. developed sibling empathy once emotions had simmered down and there was rational room to talk of peace. One-on-one, they might have posed questions such as, “How would you feel if David poked you every time you walked past him?”

Furthermore, always useful for children and teenagers to hear and repeat ad nauseum, is the Golden Rule; a universal dictum expressed in one way or another in every human culture: Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

9.  prudently managed a litany of competitive grievances in the “Ed got two photos on your iPad and I got one” bracket.  “Ed’s photo’s are smaller. If you put them together, they’re the size of your big one. It’s not equal but it is fair.”

10. Next, the Milliband parents may have known about the EXIT RULE! Psychologically or physically, they may have left the conversation before they were sucked back into the rivalry-for-attention vacuum.

When the boys reached late childhood, say, 8-10 years, and depending on their ability to reason, the Millibands might have:

11. negotiated the boundaries and consequences for inappropriate rivalry with them. Through negotiation the boys could buy into and take ownership of and responsibility for the family agreement. It is important that they were able to do this because teenagers particularly, tend to rebel at dictatorial parental regimes.

12. have avoided the Good Cop – Bad Cop division. Both parents would have shared the supervision of the boundaries and consequences so that the brothers would be thwarted in an attempt to use the mother of all strikes: playing one parent off the other; the old ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Families fragment under the strain of this tactic because the broken alliances formed from the division are chaotic and upsetting. Consequently, mistrust, hurt and distortion can form the fabric of family life.

The Millibands may have understood that it is of critical importance that parents cooperate with each other on the boundaries and consequences and live and love family life as a solid team.

Sibling success

Clearly, family functionality begins with parents as the interface between genetic endowments and environmental learning. Parenting is an exhausting job that requires unending sacrifices. Yet parental mediation between siblings forms the backdrop to their children’s social development.  The critical hallmark of social development – cooperation, whether between siblings or fellow humans – is likely to follow.

While it is inevitable that siblings will quarrel, the spin-off for parents who teach their children well is the supreme pleasure of also witnessing sibling kindness and cooperation. For this reason, the hugging Milleband brothers may be a testimony to their parents engagement with the third edge of the sword – the judicious management of the sibling rivalry. If so, David and Ed’s parents, Mr and Mrs Milliband, ought to be congratulated.

Aside from the Millebands, names, locales, people and incidents have been fictitiously created by the author. Any resemblance to actual people, places or individuals is entirely coincidental.




[1] The content of the quote was first alluded to by the philosopher Samuel Johnson. His poetic reference was reduced by U.S. Senator H. Johnson (1917) to “When war comes the first casualty is truth.”


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