Sibling Revelry

The new science of brothers and sisters ... at home and at summer camp

Posted May 12, 2015

History and fiction are littered with stories about the dark side of sibling relationships, including unfriendly competition and even unfriendlier abuse (Butler, 2006). While the documented cases of long-term psychological fallout suggest abuse is a bit of an outlier, there’s no question that conflict among brothers, sisters, and sisters and brothers can be fodder for legitimate concern.

Though perhaps not as much as you might think.

A growing body of research spanning the last decade reveals evidence of numerous positive outcomes of the sibling experience … even when it’s rivalrous.

Cases in point can be found in Signe Whitson’s Huffington Post column “Why Sibling Rivalry Is Good for Kids.” She points to gains in problem-solving, self-control, listening and empathy (Whitson, 2012).

Sounds good.

In his TIME magazine article “The New Science of Siblings,” Jeffrey Kluger offers some insights into the dynamics that play into these relationships. He says, “For a long time, researchers have tried to nail down just what shapes us most. And over the years, they’ve had a lot of eureka moments. First it was our parents, particularly our mothers. Then it was our genes. Next it was our peers, who show up last but hold great sway. And all of those were good ones – but only as far as they went” (Kluger, 2006).

Kluger goes on to speculate about an unidentified “… temperamental dark matter exerting an invisible gravitational pull of its own.” He states, “More and more, scientists are concluding this unexplained force is our siblings.” While the “dark matter” may be sibling strife, he, too, concludes that childhood fights among sibs can be good.

Moreover, Kluger weaves a tapestry of sisterly and brotherly bonds, characterizing these important individuals as “collaborators, and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride.”

A February 2, 2015, Boston Globe article by Ami Albernaz cites a study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence in articulating the case that it’s not so much about whether siblings fight as much as it is the degree of affection between them. She quotes the study’s co-author Laura Padilla-Walker as saying, “Siblings provide a unique opportunity for children and teens to resolve conflict and take the perspective of another person, both of which promote feelings of caring and concern” (Albernaz, 2015).

The same study noted that, quite simply, the presence of a brother or sister could just make you happier (Black, 2010).

Happiness is a qualifying characteristic of the relationship between Madeleine McArdle and her younger brother, Charlton. In an email conversation, Madeleine, 19 and a first-year student at Dartmouth College, said of Charlton, 15 and a sophomore at Latin School of Chicago, “My brother and I have a wonderful bond. It is one that I believe can only be formed between those who live together in close quarters, who love each other unconditionally and who are there for each other no matter the circumstances. What is great about our relationship is that I find myself continuously learning from him and sharing his innate qualities of enthusiasm, leadership and acceptance of others, even though I am older.”

Is the admiration mutual? You bet!

Charlton told me, “To have an older sister who can help me through the hard times, one I can look up to, is a privilege that not everyone gets. She will always be there for me and I will always be there for her.”

Madeleine and Charlton share not only a family and a home: they share a summer camp. And this time of year with vacation planning in full swing, many parents ask, “Is sending my kids to the same camp a good idea?”

According to an article published in Camping Magazine, “Family Matters: Sending Siblings to Camp,” it may very well be. “Siblings who are close in age and interests and consistently get along with each other may find camp even more enjoyable if given the opportunity to experience it together. And when the camp experience is over, the siblings can reminisce and engage jointly in any new hobbies they picked up over the summer” (ACA, 2012).

The qualitative gains of sibling relationships beg the question, “Do friendships forged at summer camp elicit the same positive outcomes?” Certainly, Madeleine and Charlton, who know well the value of blood brother and sister, believe that they do.

Charlton wrote, “I love all my school friends, but the relationships that I have with each of my camp friends trump those. My cabinmates, and even the girls in my group, have reached the status of siblings to me. I feel the same enduring bond that I feel with my sister. We rely on each other and grow with each other, reinforcing the unbreakable trust between us.”

For her part, Madeleine explained, “When 20 people live together in a one-room cabin of bunk beds, it’s almost impossible to not develop some sibling-like relationships. These friends that I have made at camp remain my best friends, along with my brother, and our friendships outlast any time or distance separation that may keep us apart.”

Emma Rich, a high school junior from New York City, shared her thoughts about being an only child and going to camp. “Sleepaway camp has offered me many valuable interpersonal experiences that I would not have otherwise had as an only child. For the first time in my life, I was not living in a home environment where I conducted my life without competition from siblings. I had to learn to share my personal space with 12 other girls, develop my ability to navigate through the dynamics of peer interactions on a constant basis and deal sensitively with my camp sisters and brothers.”

Similarly, Jesse Bajaj, a University of Miami sophomore, offered, "Camp is truly a second home, and the best thing is the family that comes with it. As an only child, I longed for a sibling my entire life. Fortunately, I was given dozens of the best siblings in the world at camp."

The article “Happy National Siblings Day!” also offers some perspective on these topics. “Everlasting friendships are made with camp friends. After living with them for sometimes over 10 years, they basically feel like family! Camp friends will be true sisters or brothers for life, even if they are not blood related” (Summer365, 2015).

And so this summer, young people at camp will revel in relationships and experience the benefits of having siblings.

Stephen Gray Wallace is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com. 

Jesse Bajaj, Madeleine McArdle and Emma Rich are student members of the national advisory board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE).

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2015 All Rights Reserved

REFERENCES

ACA (American Camping Association). (2012). Family matters: sending siblings to camp. Camping Magazine. April 19, 2012. http://www.acacamps.org/blog/parents-place/family-matters-sending-siblin... (5 May 2015).

Albernaz, A. (2015). Having a sibling has many positive impacts, study says. The Boston Globe. February 2, 2015. http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2015/02/02/having-sibling-has-many-... (5 May 2015).

Black, R. (2010). The good news about brothers and sisters: they can make you happier. Parentwell.com. August 10, 2010. http://www.parentwell.com/the-good-news-about-brothers-and-sisters-they-... (5 May 2015).

Butler, K. (2006). Beyond rivalry, a hidden world of sibling violence. The New York Times. February 28, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/28/health/28sibl.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (5 May 2015).

Kluger, J. (2006). The new science of siblings. TIME. July 10, 2006. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1209949,00.html (5 May 2015).

Summer365. (2015). Happy national siblings day!. Summer365.com. http://www.summer365.com/national-sibling-day/ (5 May 2015).

Whitson, S. (2012). Why sibling rivalry is good for kids. The Huffington Post. March 19, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/signe-whitson/sibling-rivalry_b_1353771.html (5 May 2015).