"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sibling Rivalry

“Show me a sibling who experiences no sibling rivalry, and I’ll show you an only child”, says George Colt in a hilarious account (New York Times 11.25.12) of sibling rivalry in his and more famous households:

Growing up in a crowded apartment on East 93rd Street, Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo Marx shared a bed relatively peaceably, but not a meal. “There was generally some kind of a brawl at the dinner table over who would get what,” said Groucho, who recalled reaching for the last roll on the plate only to see a cleaver, wielded by the normally equable Harpo, slam down within an inch of his hand.

The same drama was played out in the James Joyce and John F. Kennedy households as well, researchers inform us, in all societies. Child psychologist David Levy who did the first scientific studies of sibling rivalry in the United States in 1930 expanded his study to the Kekchi Indians of Guatemala; and concluded that regardless of age, gender, birth order or cultural background, sibling rivalry is a fact of family life.

Levy’s original study in the United States showed how bloody-minded sibling rivalry is:

Levy, who gave his patients celluloid dolls that represented their parents and younger siblings and asked them what they felt when they saw the baby brother or sister doll nursing at its mother’s breast. There ensued scenes of sibling carnage to rival anything in the Old Testament. Among the responses were:  “dropping,” “shooting,” “throwing,” “slapping,” “hitting with stick,” “hammering,” “tearing apart,” “scattering parts,” “biting,” “crushing with fingers,” “crushing with feet,” “crushing with truck” and “piercing (with screw driver).”

My children were born 18 months apart and despite the age difference were very equally matched.  My son was always bigger and stronger; and my daughter, like most girls, matured more quickly and was more socially savvy.  He could physically attack and pummel her.  She could outwit and trick him.  As they grew older she learned how to wound and punish with a few well-timed and sharp verbal barbs about his hair or clothes. She kept a lot of poisoned arrows in her quiver and I told her that it was to her credit that in the heat of sibling battle, she didn’t let many fly. “Sometimes he deserves it”, she said.

Even when they were older the physical battles continued.  One day my daughter was so incensed with my son that she punched her hand through a window to get at him.  When she was an adult I mentioned this incident to her and said, “You and your brother didn’t really want to hurt each other did you?”  I was thinking of dogs who usually just pissed on fire hydrants, raised their hackles, bared their teeth, growled, and looked menacing until one backed off.  “Oh yes we did”, she said. “We wanted to kill each other.”

Colt, the author of the Times piece remembers how his parents did everything they could to make things exactly equal so that he and his brothers would not fight:

Our rivalry played out most nakedly at the dinner table. Who got the largest hamburger? Who finished eating fast enough to get seconds before the food ran out? Who got the biggest slice of pie? Attempting to forestall quarrels, our mother cut portions so nearly identical it would have taken a micrometer to tell them apart. But in vain. Whether lunging for the last hot dog, filching an extra piece of crispy skin from the roast chicken or merely noting who had gotten the most cherries in his fruit cocktail, each of us struggled, constantly, to get our fair share — or, preferably, a lot more.

I remember doing the same thing, pouring the juice slowly and deliberately in two glasses as my children watched, eyeball to juice level, inspecting for any infraction, any favoritism.  I couldn’t resist the teaching moment, however, and once poured the juice in two different glasses, one tall and thin, the other short and fat, but with the same volume.  “Hey”, yelled my son. “She’s getting more than me!”  He had fallen into my trap.  “No, she didn’t”, I replied and proceeded to complete the experiment.  I had one-upped him.

Apparently it is not unusual that sibling rivalry centers around food:

Food’s central role in that rivalry is, in part, a matter of biology. [Sibling food fights are] triggered by the same instinct that drives piglets to fight for position nearest the sow’s head, where the nipples deliver the most milk... Feeding time in the Marx kitchen was tame compared with feeding time in any blue-footed booby nest, where the eldest chick often pecks the youngest to death in order to increase its own chances of survival.. Spotted hyenas, for example, routinely attack their younger sibling within minutes of its birth, sinking their teeth into its shoulder blades and shaking, in order to minimize competition for their mother’s milk.

I once asked my children why they fought.  They fought over nothing (“He’s sitting too close to me….She kicked me….He threw a potato chip at me…”) but they fought all the time.  My daughter hesitated for a brief moment and then replied, “You know, I don’t really remember.  I just hated him”.  This didn’t surprise me.  I had read enough to understand that it was not about them, it was about us, the parents.  Yet we prided ourselves on what we thought was our even-handed treatment of our children. We never gave either one reason to feel slighted. It obviously was about something much more deeply-rooted:

The word “rival” is derived from the Latin “rivalis,” meaning “using the same stream as another.” In pre-Christian times, rivals were people or tribes who fought over water from the same river. “In our terms,” the psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer once observed, “the river is the mother who supplies our basic needs, and the children compete for access to her.”

Most parents will do anything to stop the fighting, and there is nothing more annoying than the constant bickering, squabbling, pushing, grabbing, and kicking.  It can drive even the most patient parent bonkers.  One day we all were driving up to Connecticut from DC to see my parents.  We had an old car and it had no air conditioning.  The ride was hot and noisy, and I am sure the children were just as pissed at all of it as we were; but the difference was they took out their frustration and prickly heat out on each other.  Although we had separated the car seats about as far as they could go, the little animals could still get at each other. 

Because they were strapped in they could only land glancing blows and deflected kicks, so they started spitting and throwing whatever they could find at each other.  Bits of sandwich corners, broken Oreo cookies, and banana peels.  We broke our strict No Junk Food household rules when it came to car travel.  We left home early in the morning, around 4am when the bambini were still groggy and half-asleep.  We knew that we could get a good hour-and-a-half, maybe even two hours of peace and quiet while they slept.

When they woke up, we fed them junk food.  This breach in routine and rules threw them for a minute, but they quickly grabbed and gobbled the chips, cookies, and candies we threw into the cage.  They gorged themselves insensate, and dropped off to sleep.  We had gained another hour and a half.   Three more to go.  I suspect that once all the sugar was digested and got into the bloodstream, it hit their little brains like mainlined coke.  Their eruptions became volcanic, their scrambling attempts to punch, hurt, and maim were Olympic.  They yelled, cried, spat, and flailed.  I became as angry as they and started yelling and screaming at them.  The small car was a circus gone bad.  There was only one thing I could do.  I wrenched the steering wheel and swerved two lanes to the shoulder of the Interstate and screeched to a halt, throwing all the Oreos, banana peels, and Doritos forward in a shower of fast food debris.  Silence.  It worked.

It worked alright, but only for about twenty minutes, but tired and dispirited with no more energy or will to battle, all we could do was let them have at it.  My mother always wondered why we arrived such wrecks.

Colt reports that some parents actually encourage sibling rivalry to stimulate competition:

In some homes, parents organize the competition; to encourage Darwinian resilience among his elder four sons, Samuel Marx set out three sweet rolls each morning; as soon as a brother had wolfed down his breakfast, he was permitted to grab a roll, leaving the slowest eater empty-handed.

Mr. Marx must have had domestic help or had an obedient and accepting wife who would deal with the aftermath, because no parent in their right mind would ever bring on cyclones of sibling rage and antagonism.

Our niños now are the best of friends, and I like to think that the herculean struggles of childhood were somehow necessary for them to establish a more mature, respectful, and loving relationship. My wife and I still try to be even-handed, not because we don’t want to stir up hornet’s nests or provoke a return to some deeply-buried, residual infantile rivalries; but because it seems the right thing to do for offspring who have come into their own.  From what I can tell, the sibling rivalry has disappeared; but then again I have heard of siblings who lived their whole lives in loving harmony, only to come out of their corners punching to get the biggest piece of the inheritance pie. 

When my older brother, Harry, traveling in India after college, was stricken with a mysterious gastrointestinal disease and lost 30 pounds, he suspects the culprit was a half-eaten Popsicle he found on the street and instinctively gobbled up before someone else got it.

If this story is true, then Mr. Colt may have some deadly brutal fights coming once his parents are six-feet under and the will is read to the surviving brothers. 

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