For Parents: Factors That Shape Your Children

In books about brothers and sisters, a lot is made about birth order.  The problem is: most studies have failed to show that the order in which children are born affects who they are.

Birth order is not so different than your children’s astrological sign.  You may find some characteristics that match and some that don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: birth order is a factor in who you children are and their relationships outside of the family.  But it’s only one of many factors.

So, what are other factors that shape your children?

  • Gender – Children learn a lot from a sibling of the opposite sex:  more about the “feminine” and “masculine” roles; how to love and not to love; how to quarrel and make up; self-esteem
  • Age spacing – There is evidence to support the benefits of children close together in age, and evidence to support the benefits of having children further apart.  The following article provides some of the pluses/minuses of close age spacing and some of the pluses/minuses of more years between the birth of one sibling and the next.
  • From generation to generation – Family patterns can be handed down from one generation to the next.  Your children and you are, in part, products of your ancestors and their patterns of behavior.  An example: A woman whose father and three siblings immigrated to the United States and had one another’s “back.”  Their close relationship served as a model for her and her siblings.  So, pay attention to how you and your siblings interact and how your parents and their siblings interact.  Your children are watching.
  • Gender preference – In both Western and Eastern cultures, boys are still valued more than girls.  In these cultures, boys are taught that they are superior to their sisters.  And girls are taught to accept this preference and their inferiority.  You can imagine how this setup can affect relationships between your male and female children.  When girls and boys are both valued and encouraged to explore their potential, they not only excel but so do their connections with their brothers and sisters.
  • Expressing emotions – Expressing emotions tends to run along ethnic lines.  People living in or from Mediterranean cultures tend to express their emotions more freely than people from non-Mediterranean cultures. Trouble can brew when your children and other family members are not encouraged to say what they feel.  The end results can be indirect aggression because feelings get bottled up inside.

Putting It All Together

The next time someone comments on the birth order of your children, you may want to suggest that, yes, birth order is a factor that helps shape your children but that there are many other factors that influence your children’s personalities and how they get along with one another.



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Our First Marriage Partners

It should come as no surprise (though siblings are surprised) that our brothers and sisters influence how we relate to the opposite sex. Siblings are our first marriage partners.  They teach us about what guys want and what women want.  They teach us how to (or how not to) act with folks of the opposite gender.  Just ask a female friend what she learned from her brother. And ask a male friend what he learned from his sister. You might find the answers surprising, even funny. (“I learned all about hair stuff and girls with their periods.” Or, “I learned that guys don’t talk about their feelings as easily as girls. And I learned that guys are often much more competitive.”)


A Short Quiz with No Right or Wrong Answers:

  • What did you learn growing up about the opposite sex?
  • What do you think your sibling of the opposite sex learned from you?
  • What are three words that describe the person you think your sibling should/should have married?


When Siblings Marry

In one of the few studies of young-and middle-adult siblings, two-thirds of the siblings said that the marriages of their brothers and sisters detracted from their relationship. They felt their sibling had “married down.” Or they simply didn’t like a sibling’s spouse or were not liked by him/her.

It is not uncommon for a brother’s or sister’s marriage to significantly alter the dynamics between siblings. Early adulthood, the time in which many marriages occur, represents a rite of passage from the inner turmoil of late adolescence to the tasks of preparing for a lifework and forming intimate relationships outside of the family. Doing what we “should”—largely defined by family models, culture, and the prejudices of our peers—often instructs us to get married and settle down, to start our own family. For some siblings, these moves toward independence dictate a move away from the close connections with brothers and sisters. For others, the insecurity and/or jealously of a sibling’s spouse forces a wedge between them.

Alas, neither my sister nor my brother married.  So, I’m left to depend on other sibling stories about how marriage has affected their connection.  I heard from one “friend” on Facebook today who said that she loves her sister-in-law and is closer now to her brother than ever before.



Someone on Twitter tweeted that, while she liked her sister-in-law, she wished her good luck when it came to being married to her brother.  Oh, dear . . .





A director of a national not-for-profit organization whom I interviewed for The Sibling Connection: How Siblings Shape Our Lives described a family “truth” that dictated how she and her two sisters and two brothers were to react when one of their siblings married.

The rest of us were not allowed to have any judgmental thoughts or feelings.  I don’t know where that came from.  It was just something that had to be.  And, by and large, that has been the case.  We have welcomed the new spouses into the family, although they have never been equal to the brothers and sisters.  They’ve always been brothers-or sisters-in-laws.


And then there are the stories of siblings who have been estranged since one or the other’s marriage.  They complain of sister or brother-in-laws who have driven a wedge between the siblings or don’t allow much contact with them or do everything in their power to make life miserable for everyone except their spouse.  (Hmm . . . I’m thinking they probably make life miserable for their spouse as well.)

On a happier note, frayed connections between siblings because of one or the other’s spouse tend to mellow with age.  Siblings are anxious to reconnect and to have their brothers and sisters back in their lives.  They may have finally found their voice and bust out of the confines their spouses have erected.  Or their spouse may have passed away.  (That’s one sure way to solve the problem.)

The prevailing theory has been that we often marry someone just like (or the polar opposite) of the parent of the opposite sex.

But more recent emphasis has been placed on the important role our siblings play as our first marriage partners.,9171,1209949,00.html