Siblings Unrivaled

…we were a two decade long loving embrace, that in truth can never be the same again…

sons, family, brothers

There is one aspect of parenting that I feel more strongly about than most others, and I have no explanation for why.  I want my sons to be close, best-friend, always-there-for-each-other, close.  I want them to have the kind of intimacy that comes with having spent a lifetime together, and I desperately want it to last.  But why I feel this so passionately, why it ranks right near the very top of the list of things I hope for my family, I would struggle to say.

Maybe it is because I believe so strongly that siblings are monumental in our lives.  I had nothing to back up this assertion until I discovered Jeffrey Kluger, author of  The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us,
who explains,

“From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our 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. They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to; how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them.”

By the time a child is eleven, she has spent a third of her free time with her siblings, more time than is spent with any other person. Kluger also reminds us that the sibling relationship will be, for most of us, by some measure the longest relationship in our lives.

Kluger concludes by saying that siblings socialize each other.  My three children shared a single bedroom and bathroom.  Everything they ever learned about taking turns, personal space and accommodating the needs and desires of others they learned from each other in those two rooms.  Lest I paint an overly idyllic picture, everything they learned about biting, hitting, head locks, and getting in the last shot, be it verbal or physical, they also learned in their very own bedroom. I often feel that they prepared each other for the outside world, perhaps more so than I did. Kluger describes the relationship between himself and his three brothers as, “a loud, messy, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit.” And that sounds just about right to me.

Could it be that I want my sons to be close because I believe that in no small measure they created each other?  Psychologists call this deidentification but we parents know the phenomena as our kids working really hard not be like each other.  How many families do we know where the younger siblings are less cautious either because they don’t want to emulate the oldest or because, as I suspect with my kids, they know whatever the problem, the oldest has got it covered.   Siblings broaden our world by bringing their interests and friends right through our front door.  If they are older they are an example, a cautionary tale or a road map.  If they are younger they provide a challenge, a different way to do things, a cause for reflection.

My desire for closeness amongst my children started when they were tiny.  Our three boys were born in four years.  And while, perhaps, I had a fantasy of built-in play dates and their ability to amuse themselves without maternal intervention, the reality was often very different.  They surely loved each other and when each of them entered our house, from school, soccer or a playdate, the first question was for the location of their brothers. Yet, they fought with a physical ferocity that at times left me staggering.  A game would begin, there would be a break where they seemingly tried to kill each other and then their play would resume as if random outbreaks of violence were to be expected.

My kids shared nicknames and inside jokes that conveyed both endearment and ridicule and more than once, okay more than a hundred times, my husband had to reassure me that males say terrible things to each other as a sign of affection, it did not mean that they hated each other. The cruel quips that they hurled at each other were a symbol of their love and nothing to worry about. In her recent book, Social Understanding and Social Lives: From Toddlerhood through to the Transition to School (Essays in Developmental Psychology), Dr Claire Hughes, explains that .

“The traditional view is that having a brother or sister leads to a lot of competition for parents’ attention and love. In fact, the balance of our evidence suggests that children’s social understanding may be accelerated by their interaction with siblings in many cases.”

Maybe my hope for them has nothing to do with them but rather my feelings towards my own brothers.  I believe my younger brothers to be two of the kindest most loving men I have ever known.  They were playdates and confederates for me and have been wonderful uncles from the start.  At no point in my life when I needed them did they ever let me down and I know my sisters-in-law to be among the luckiest of women. Was this just a case of wanting for my children the loyalty my brothers and I have enjoyed?

As my sons were separating for college I began to panic.  Maybe their closeness was proximity.  Like many siblings, they are very different personalities with wildly divergent interests.  Was their daily interaction the glue? Without driving to school together and sitting side by side at the dinner table would it all evaporate?  And although it appears, thus far, that I need not have worried as they text, video chat and even have their own Facebook group. Still there was the nagging question, why do I care so much?

After I finished examining my better motives for their enduring friendship I took a hard look at myself,  for as Kluger pointedly says, “…reproducing is a genetically narcissistic act.” Maybe, this was just about me.

My sons, husband and I, the five of us, were a period in time, a two decade long loving embrace, that in truth can never be the same again. For now there will be girlfriends and studies, later spouses, grandchildren and careers, and those magical decades will exist only in our hearts.  But, If they have each other they will always have five of us together.

For as long as they are bound together, in the decades when their father and I are here with them, and for the many in which we will not be, my sons can at any moment conjure up our regular Sunday night dinners, with roast chicken, carrots, onions and baked potatoes. They can be whisked back to a summer at the beach with our closest friends or the Christmas morning they saw the house across the street burn to the ground.  They can remember moving houses and countries together, and the school and teachers they shared over many years.  For as long as the three of them are close, all five of us are close, be it a year from now or fifty years from now.  Their love for each other recreates what my husband and I created.

They hold each other’s childhood and with a word or a phrase the five of us are back together again, and we are all young with so much of our lives still unknown.  I told them that I wanted them to be close forever because in the end they would always have each other, because it is truly a blessing in life if there is someone who can be counted on at any time.  But I now realize I was being far more selfish, because as long as they are there for each other, they will always have us.

TED talk: The Sibling Bond with Jeffrey Kluger



  1. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says

    ohhhhh…………this filled me with such longing………i want this for ME and for my three too.

  2. Anonymous says

    This was so beautiful. You and your husband gave your boys roots and wings, and some great memories. Terrific post!

  3. happyoutlook says

    Wonderful post! I too want my kids to be there for each other! I recently borrowed the idea from a friend and now encourage sibling togetherness of my teens/20 something children by offering to help underwrite some of the cost of their going to a movie together or visiting each other at college. Of course, I love it when they come home because then I get to be with them too!

    • says

      Such a great idea for them to build those ties, or Kluger calls them dyads, on their own. It is an investment in the rest of their lives.

  4. says

    Having them close in age and the same gender helps tremendously with bonding. It’s a wonderful thing to encourage in families and even better when it actually pans out. Enjoy them while their home.

    • says

      It does help, no question. But in doing a bit of research I found how important siblings of the opposite gender are to each other in learning about male/female differences. Kids learn something different in every family dynamic.

  5. says

    Wonderful post. Nothing fills my heart more than watching my boys interact in postive ways. As you have said, even the negetive ways bring valuable lessons and boys seem to value that sort of engagement. I am like you, it’s really important to me that my boys get on (four and half years seperate them), probably because I didn’t have siblings and feel like I missed out. It was very important to me to have more then one child and thankfully the good Lord was willing.

    • says

      The negative interactions between boys is like a foreign language we moms have to learn. And I have to tell you, I am not very good at foreign languages!

  6. says

    This post brought me to tears. I share the same feelings about the closeness of my three grown children; every time they come together to joke, and reminisce and tease, I feel as if the yeas have melted away and we are back to being our own little world of five. Thanks you for this beautiful essay!

    • says

      I am so happy that this spoke to you. Your kids seem to have similar interests, that will hopefully bind them together for many years to come.

  7. bohemianspiritedmom says

    Beautiful. “..a period in time, two decade long loving embrace.’ What wonderful sentiment describing the fleeting time our kids are entrusted into our care

  8. says

    Wow. What a beautifully written post. If I ever give my son a sibling I too would want him to be close to his brother or sibling. My brother and I are very close and I know that in a heartbeat he has my back. I loved what you wrote about in the end. It’s your children’s childhood memories that keep you as a parent in their hearts. Again, brilliant, heartfelt writing.

    • says

      You are very kind to say, thank you. I think in some part we model this relationship with our siblings for our children, so you sound like you are set!

  9. Anonymous says

    Thank you for sharing….just spent a family weekend with my two sisters….and I see how my children watch and engage with the three of us as they continue to evolve in their own sibbling relationships.

  10. says

    i have three brothers (and two sisters). i think its different with brothers – not so many overt signs of affection as you see in sisters. when we’re all together though, they gravitate to each other. over the years, the relationship the three of them share ebbs and flows just like all great friendships do, but there is something unique in the relationship they share and its visible. i’m sure your boys will find the same as they grow older together.

    • says

      I certainly hope you are right. With the older two still at University, it is in the early stages, as we all know so many changes to come. I think that ebb and flow is very apt, and I will remember that.

      • Anonymous says

        keep the faith. it is so apparent how much you love your children and your family. that’s how they learn how to do the same.

  11. Sleeping Mom @ Sleeping Should Be Easy says

    Beautiful! Your sons are lucky to have you encouraging their bond, from childhood til now. I only have one kid now, but if I were to have another one, I also want my kids to be close. Your intro paragraph really hit home because I too can’t explain *why* I would want my kids close, only that it’s a huge deal for me that they are. Of course I may be setting myself up for unrealistic expectations, but I would love it if my kiddo had a close relationship with a sibling.

    • says

      It is funny some of the things we just know to be true, but never seem to question why. Those are probably the things we should be examining closely! Thank you so much for reading, we are always grateful.

  12. S says

    This is just beautiful. I teared up especially at the “My sons, husband and I, the five of us, were a period in time, a two decade long loving embrace, that in truth can never be the same again”. My boys are still so young (at 4 and 2) and I so love watching them grow to play together and look for each other every morning when they wake. Thinking about that time when they will leave is so amazingly hard despite how hard the days can now be.

    • says

      It is so hard when they go…hence this blog. We are touched that you are reading us and thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement.

  13. says

    “They hold each other’s childhood.” I think as a sibling this rings true. My sister and I have history. I love knowing my kids will share that, that they have a relationship outside of my husband and me, secrets and memories and a bond that doesn’t include us. My kids have been close from the start, and having a son and daughter, that really surprised me. They cannot be apart. I always hold my breath that this will not change.

    • says

      There is so many memories that siblings share because they are experiencing our families lives from the same perspective as children. If your children are close now, they have the base for a lifetime, I think the glue can be set very early.

  14. says

    You are fast becoming one of my favourite blogs – love the way yourexpress your wishes for your sons to be and remain close- I have that same wish – it is not coming true yet, but I have hope for the future

    • says

      You warm our hearts, thank you so much for your lovely words. Try to express what we think all of us mothers (and fathers!) feel. The point about siblings being the longest relationship of our lives, really brings it home. Thank you for reading…

  15. Emily E says

    We are three, my boys and me. They are two years apart. I told my oldest on the day his brother was born that “brothers are a gift from God”. Of course they had no reason to doubt me, so they treated each other with love and kindness that left people asking me if they were always that nice to each other. I had to be honest–they had stood together (albeit in diapers) as their father left and was fierce and angry– yes, they treasure each other. I remember in preschool when an older sibling of one classmate died in an accident. There sat my two, tucked into one chair all day. It was the day they found out you could lose a brother. Their sadness had no bottom– it went all the way to their core. I didn’t try to talk them out of their sadness or stop their quiet vigil that day- they needed to face that together- it wasn’t about me at all. They went on to be happy, silly, respectful, reflective, annoying, loud and came back as gifts to each other after each time they seemed to take a step apart. But, they are now preparing for their first big separation– college in the fall for the oldest. I thought I would be the one to shed the tears, but they are already savoring their final summer before everything changes. They again are sitting side by side tucked in together while they are the sizes of grown men, playing computer games, and planning their last summer. There are occasional references to the uncertainty for each other waiting at the end of this summer. I’m blessed to have shared in their magic so long. They’ll always have their brother.
    Your piece was striking and truthful, with a bit of sadness of them bringing the whole five back with their collective memories. Thank you.

    • says

      Your comment is a beautiful post and a testament to your wonderful parenting. I wrote a post earlier this year about their separation and how technology has allowed them to stay so close, I am sure your boys will do the same. When they reunite for the summer I am sure your boys will pick right up where they left off. You were right on the very first day, they are a true gift to each other.

    • says

      This is truly a beautiful thing to experience! Certainly a result of your wonderful parenting!

  16. Tara MD says

    Thank you for articulating what I haven’t quite been able to. This struck me very deeply and resonates with regard to my own children and my own childhood.

  17. says

    Wendy and I have been close all during our teens and adult lives (best not to discuss the early years, when I seriously wanted her to marry our brother, as I felt “they deserved each other”).

    And my two kids–now young adults–are almost 12 years apart, yet close in so many important ways. You can feel the love when they’re together, and it’s wonderful to see.

    Thanks for a lovely post!

  18. says

    Beautiful! I have two girls,, 17 and 15, and they’re very close. Both are fashion-conscious, but the older says, “You wouldn’t even know how to dress if it wasn’t for me!” The younger DOES copy many of her sister’s fashion trends. They’ll really miss each other when the older goes to college.

    • says

      But it is such a nice kind of missing, the beginning of their new life long relationship as adult siblings. Thanks so much for the comment.

  19. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    What an exquisitely written post, one that I will read and reread as I contemplate my children’s relationships with each other, as well as my (still complicated) relationship with my own brother.

  20. Carpool Goddess says

    This is so beautiful. And just so you know, I just got my first morning cry out of the way:)

  21. says

    There is no relationship in my life that is more complex and yet necessary than the one I have with my brother, my only sibling. I’ve often told my husband, when things have gotten difficult between my brother and me, that he’s the only brother I have and I will do anything to make our relationship work. The shared history is something that is invaluable, and there’s no denying the pull of DNA!

    • says

      You are so right about the DNA and the fact that there are parts of our lives that only our siblings share. They hold a piece of our childhood…

  22. Risa says

    Lisa, I just loved this post. My kids are grown up and married (and two have kids of their own now), and live across the country from each other. The times we can manage to get all of us together are few and far between. Even though they are 5 1/2 years apart in age, my boys have a special relationship. They were each other’s best man at their weddings, and rose to the occasion with eloquent toasts that brought me to tears. (My older son began his by saying, “I love my brother.” He had me right there!). And when his son was born, my daughter flew out to California for a week, leaving her husband and daughter behind, to play Mary Poppins for the new little family–folding laundry, baking bread, holding the baby while the parent slept–I was so impressed. Nothing gives me greater joy than knowing they still enjoy the times we can all be together–and thankfully, their spouses go along with the craziness that always happens when the five of us sit around a table…Thanks for writing this touching piece. I can tell it has resonated with a lot of your readers.

    • says

      Oh Risa, what you have described is so much what I hope for my sons. My brother came to see me right after I had my eldest and it was so touching. The kind of thing that binds you forever. Cannot imagine the state you must have been in at your son’s toast!

  23. says

    This is beautiful and made me long for the very same for my three girls. I do know why I want it, though: Because I never had the close and kind relationship with my siblings, not with any of the four sisters or two brothers. I so want my girls to… but maybe I didn’t learn how to instill it for they are not as close as I’d hoped. They love one another, no doubt, but nothing worthy of pillow-stitched sentiments.

    • says

      Never heard that expression, pillow stitched sentiments….. Sometimes I wonder if siblings do not go in and out of closeness depending on the stage of life. I imagine their relationships will have many stages.

  24. says

    I have two sons and I want them to be close for pretty much the same reasons you state, but also because, I never had a close relationship with my brother. There were many factors: age gap, different genders, and also because he was jealous of me the first few years. I want my sons to have a different experience compared to that and hopefully, it is all working out that way!

    • says

      I hope they do. I had never thought about Kluger’s point of it being the longest relationship of our lives. What a blessing if it is one of the best.

  25. says

    THANK YOU for putting into words something I have been facing these past two years or so…ever since my first child went off to college. I hope I can convey this hope to my kids. As they grow older, it is my hope they will never grow “apart” and live separate lives as, sad as it is, I see in my husband and his sibling :(.
    What a gift you have given me this morning!’

    • says

      It so wonderful when we can share these experiences, thank YOU for commenting and sharing with us!

  26. says

    wow. this post makes me wish I was close with my brother & sister. Since I was the oldest, my parents had me take a more authoritative role when it came to my brother & sister. I was always in charge of them, never felt that close sibling bond.


  1. […] writes: My kids shared a single bedroom.  It was a big bedroom and they are all boys, so for our family, it worked.  One of my greatest joys was listening to their chatter at night as […]

  2. […] then they were coming home.  Thanksgiving was upon us and for five days I would have three starving teen-age boys.  So I ventured back, wandered freely among the aisles, filling and then ultimately overfilling my […]

  3. […] son thought it was strange when I told him that I had taken a picture of him and his three siblings while they were blissfully sleeping on two cots and in two twin beds while sharing a kids’ room […]

  4. […] mediate and referee fights so vicious that blood may be drawn.  And while their bodies may be hurt, their feelings won’t be and they […]

  5. […] cars (ah yes, well)  and every toy of value they were ever given.   Boys seem to have a seek and destroy mechanism that is programmed from birth so this was one of the first parenting phrases I learned to say to […]

  6. […] It was a huge childhood milestone the first time my kids actually played together, real interactive sibling-as-a-playdate played together. I looked on bursting with pride and thought they would become a perfect […]

  7. […] driveway and it stirred a memory that took me back to those first few years of being married with very small children.  It had become a sort of ritual for me, a harried mother who would use the guise of taking the […]

  8. […] my family the dissolution of this myth began on March 13, 1996. I had two children in nursery school and another closing in on his due date.  The kindergarten classroom massacre that morning in […]

  9. […] My job was to give my sons relationships that would last a lifetime, people who they could turn to in need. That is what family and close friends are for. But far more than teaching that people will always be there for them, I hope I have taught them to be there for those they love.  […]