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Interview With Jeffrey Kluger, Author of 'The Sibling Effect'

Love and rivalry in the family

Growing up in a boisterous four-boy household, Jeffrey Kluger experienced the power struggles, jockeying for parental attention and mutual protectiveness common among siblings. But his views of both sibling rivalry and sibling love were complicated by family dysfunction and breakdown.

See also: Excerpt from The Sibling Effect.

Four boys in bathtub - Jeffery Kluger author of The Sibling Effect - sibling birth order

Birth order is just one contributing factor in the quality of siblings' adult relationships. — Photo by Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

"My own life has in some ways been a decades-long tour of the sibling experience," Kluger writes in The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us. "I have full sibs, I have half-sibs, and for a time I had step-sibs. My family went through divorces and remarriages and the later, blended home — and then watched that home explode, too." His brothers pulled together to weather family crises, including their mother's prescription-drug addiction, and developed close ties with half-siblings, whom they came to know only as adults.

Kluger, a senior editor and writer at Time magazine, weaves these personal stories into a lively overview of contemporary family research. The Sibling Effect discusses the effects of birth order, the upside of playroom rivalries, the impact of divorce and blended families, the closeness of twins, and how siblings function as adults. As many of us outlive parents and spouses, he writes, the only family we'll have will be "the brothers and sisters who have been with us the longest, loved us the hardest, and, by a wide margin, know us the best."

Kluger spoke to the AARP Bulletin about his book.

Q. What is the sibling effect?

A. The sibling effect is the profound power your siblings have to shape who you are and who you become. Your parents leave your life all too early; your spouse and your children don't come along until much later. Your siblings are with you throughout the entire journey. Sisters have ways of socializing brothers into the mysteries of girls. Brothers have ways of socializing sisters into the puzzle that is boys.

Q. What other influences do siblings have on one another?

A. Siblings can train one another, unfortunately, into risky behavior in all kinds of areas — drugs, alcohol, smoking, even teen pregnancy. But the upside is, siblings who avoid those problems can help socialize their younger siblings to avoid them as well. Most important, the battles that you fight in the playroom are very much dress rehearsals for the way you live your life later.

Q. Why was sibling research neglected for so long?

A. Scientists often thought of siblings as interchangeable parts, as mere playmates. One of the things they began realizing is that parents are like doctors on grand rounds in a hospital; siblings are like nurses on the ward — so siblings really know you better than your parents.

Q. Given all the emotional variables, isn't it hard to subject sibling relationships to scientific analysis?

A. Oh, yes. One of the things one of the researchers said to me was that it was just too much of a muddle — people didn't know how to tease out all the threads. But that dam began breaking 15 or 20 years ago. Now, we can begin to start seeing the results of longitudinal studies.

Q. How has recent research altered conventional wisdom about siblings?

A. We're learning how important it is both to preserve sibling relationships if they work and repair them if they're broken. We're also learning a lot about nonliteral siblings — stepsiblings, half-siblings — and the surprising power they can have. Most research shows that in blended homes, if a family can stay together for about six years, the difference between two stepsiblings or two full siblings is often really nonexistent.

Next: Are older children generally closer to parents? >>

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