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Origins of Sibling Rivalries

No two children are exactly alike, unless of course they are identical twins; and yet even this exception is not absolute. The genetic makeup of each individual is such that subtle differences exist with each child in all family units. When one child is set up as an example for other children in the family, the disadvantages can have negative consequences for both sides.

Disadvantages of using a child as an example to their siblings can result in rivalries that can create ill-will between them all their adult lives, suppress the gift’s and talents of those who feel slighted by their parents and ultimately crush a child’s self-esteem to the point that they develop codependent habits.

Each person develops a sense of their world that is unique to them. This sense and how they play that out is determined by the filtered view of their reality. When one child is depicted as a model for others, the inner picture of those who are expected to follow that child’s lead can come in to conflict with their perceived reality. Even with the will and effort to reciprocate to adult wishes this competition that has been thrust on both kids ignores their own special possibilities.

Sibling rivalries and their ugly consequences have been recorded throughout literary history. John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” is a contemporary portrayal of the biblical sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel. It is a literary masterpiece that illustrates how far children will go to meet the expectations of their parents and other mentors, showing the result that sadly ruins both boys. Two of Steinbeck’s central characters, Aron and Caleb, are not unlike other literary figures in the bible and Shakespearean works that represent the travesty that can stem from a parent’s actions or words honoring one more than the other. The Bible’s Esau and Jacob and Shakespeare’s Richard III and his brother Edward are two of the more well-known figures.

Though the “exceptional” child that is used as a role model has attributes that make them stick out to their parents, the gifts and talents of other siblings often go unnoticed by parents who narrowly focus on their star child. Repressed characteristics that distinguish one child from the other can lead to low-self-esteem and prevent them from finding their essential niche in society. The exceptional child themselves can also feel the pressure to sustain a parent’s preference for them and contends with the consequence of failing each day.

The desire to enable our children to avoid the failures and displeasure that life doles out is a common urge of parents. There are few who don’t want the best for their child or won’t do all in their power to help them advance in our competitive human market? However, when we measure one child against another we are in effect creating a hurdle that does the very thing we are trying to avoid as parents. That special arrangement of DNA that designs each of us slightly different than all others, along with the way each child filters in the realities of their world, creates a path that doesn’t always head in the same direction.

The parents who want a successful doctor, lawyer or Professor in their family may have to settle for something less socially revered with a lower pay grade. Our social structure is similar in ways to the bee or ant colony. Each individual has a function that serves the greater need of the colony. Not everyone can be the Queen. The human matrix depends on those of lesser stature to fulfill some of the more mundane requisites of our social structure. It’s hard to accommodate the notion that your child will better fit these lower roles than the ones you have in mind for them.

The document that helped found this nation expressing the desire for each to pursue life, liberty and happiness doesn’t posit that such efforts ultimately lead to fame and financial security. Each parent should embolden and empower their children to find out what ambitions they each yearn for instead of forcing a set of standards on them that act contrary to what really drives them.

The few times that prodding your less energetic children to follow the lead of the one or two more accomplished ones in your family may be the type of motivation they need and could well lead to a full and normal life. But that is more than likely the exception rather than the rule. In Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” tale, the Irish immigrant family of Samuel and Liza Hamilton consisted of 9 children. The family was poor and struggled with their life in a foreign country but they gained strength from the love of parents who encouraged them to experience all their new life would allow

Some went on to fame and fortune but some had lives less spectacular and some experienced utter failure to put a solid life together. But their outcomes were the result of unfettered choices in a family with strong bonds, not because they were forced to make choices that accommodated rigid parental expectations. True freedom isn’t a guarantee that all outcomes are good. It does insure pretty much though that those who can learn from their choices are less likely to repeat bad ones.

Parents have an obligation to the children they bring into this world to provide for their safety, health and an education to help guide their children’s futures. Part of that experience should entail an effort that helps each child discover for themselves what path they want to take and how best to achieve it. Any parent that discourages a child’s legitimate course of action by pitting them against another puts both at a disadvantage; the one who must constantly fulfill their parent’s elevated perception of them and the other who perhaps never will, no matter how much they try to.