What Makes Siblings Bond?

Apr 25, 2014
Originally published on October 7, 2016 9:59 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode How We Love.

About Jeff Kluger's TEDTalk

Writer Jeff Kluger explores the profound lifelong bond between brothers and sisters, and the influence of birth order, favoritism and sibling rivalry.

About Jeff Kluger

Jeff Kluger is the senior editor of science and technology reporting at Time magazine. He's the co-author of Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. He's also the author of Splendid Solution, Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple), and The Sibling Effect.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas around how we love. Psychologists have talked about six different types of love, and most of them deal with romantic love - the kind that Esther Perel and Helen Fisher study. But what about love that is not sexual or romantic in any way - the kind of love you feel for the people in your family?

JEGGREY KLUGER: When my mother was - this is how people did things back in the '50s - when my mother was 25 years old, she had four sons, 4 years old or younger.

RAZ: Wow.

KLUGER: Yeah. It was amazing.

RAZ: This is Jeffrey Kluger. He's a writer for Time magazine. And a few years ago, he was trying to figure out what it was that creates a bond - the particular kind of love between siblings.


KLUGER: Over the ark of decades, there may be nothing that defines us and forms us more powerfully than our relationship with our brothers and sisters. It was true for me. It's true for your children, and if you have siblings, it's true for you too.

This picture was taken when Steve, on the left, was 8 years old, I was 6, my brother Gary was 5, and my brother Bruce was 4. I opened my new book, "The Sibling Effect," on a Saturday morning not long before this picture was taken when the three older brothers decided that it might be a very good idea to lock the younger brother in a fuse cabinet in our playroom. We were, believe it or not, trying to keep him safe. Our father was a hotheaded man, somebody who didn't take kindly to being disturbed on Saturday mornings.

And he would react by stalking into the playroom and administering a very freewheeling form of corporal punishment - lashing out at whoever was within arm's reach. We were, by no means, battered children, but we did get hit. And we found it terrifying. So we devised a sort of scatter-and-hide drill. As soon as we saw or heard the footsteps coming, Steve, the oldest, would wriggle under the couch, I would dive into the closet in the playroom, Gary would dive into a window-seat toy chest, but not before we closed Bruce inside the fuse box. We told him it was Alan Shepard's space capsule, and that somehow made it work better.


RAZ: Does Bruce hold this against you? Is he, like, traumatized by this? He's like, you guys locked me in the fuse box.

KLUGER: No because our intentions were good. Believe me, we did all kinds of nasty things that were just flat-out nasty. But no, we locked him in the fuse box...

RAZ: Yeah.

KLUGER: ...Which was a big wooden cabinet. It didn't occur to us at the time of course that, you know, we were squeezing a 3-year-old right up against this panel of old-style, unscrewable, high-voltage fuses. So it's only in later life that I thought maybe we should've rethought that.


KLUGER: But my brothers and I, we were a unit, a loud, messy, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit. We felt much stronger that way than we ever could as individuals. And we knew that as our lives went on, we could always be able to call on that strength. There may be no relationship that's closer, finer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with woe than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters.

RAZ: Why is that?

KLUGER: Well, the idea is that your parents come along at the beginning of your life and then leave it too early. Your spouse and your children come along much later in your life, but your siblings are the only people who are with you through the entire ride, potentially from cradle to grave, and in the most formative part of your life.

We're clay when we first meet our siblings. We're pretty much, you know, set and kiln fired by the time we meet our spouses and a lot of our friends. But our siblings shape us. We learn from our siblings. We learn about mentoring, we learn about honesty, caring, confidence. We learn about loyalty, keeping confidence. We learn about conflict avoidance, guilt and compromise, gentleness, caring, empathy, love.

RAZ: You know, on the show, we're also hearing from Helen Fisher who talks about, of course, romantic love, right. And there's been so many studies looking to the science behind attraction - like, what is it that brings people together. And the love between siblings is so different, obviously, than romantic love, but even different than the love you have for and with your parents.

KLUGER: Well, that's right. You share a whole lot of genes with your siblings, and you share experiences. And I think that's what makes it so powerful. My brothers and I - our upbringing when I was much younger, was terribly volatile. There were divorces.

There were drug addiction issues from one of my parents. So our software coding for fear, for trauma was laid down at the same time and as a result of the same incidents. On the good side, we had other peak experiences. Even though we're Jewish, we celebrated Christmas, at least for the mercantile part of it.


KLUGER: And that sheer, consumer rapture of looking forward to a day of it, being an acutely special day, I learned that in the same way and in the same living room as my brothers did.


KLUGER: Until 15 years ago, scientists didn't really pay much attention to the sibling bond and with good reason. You have just one mother. You have just one father. If you do marriage right, you have one spouse for life. Siblings can claim none of that uniqueness. They're interchangeable, a kind of household commodity. After we're born, we do whatever we can to attract the attention of our parents.

Someone's the funny one. Someone's the pretty one. Someone's the athlete. Someone's the smart one. Parents exacerbate this further when they exhibit favoritism, which they do overwhelmingly no matter how much they admit it. A study I cite in the book "The Sibling Effect" found that 70 percent of fathers and 65 percent of mothers exhibit a preference for at least one child. And keep in mind here, the key word is exhibit. The remaining parents may simply be doing a better job of concealing things.


RAZ: And siblings can, like - can take those issues into adulthood, right. I mean, they can get, like, hung up on who's the favorite or who's the most successful. And if your sibling turns out to be really successful and you're not, I mean, it can be really tough.

KLUGER: Well, it's hard. When I first moved to New York, I moved up with my youngest brother Bruce. And he was no sooner here than he had mounted a musical comedy off Broadway. He had written it himself.

RAZ: Oh, my God.

KLUGER: Yeah. He had written - he was 24 years old.

RAZ: Wow.

KLUGER: He had written it himself. They got a major director. And I had just come up to New York with him. I had gotten a job in journalism working at the now defunct Soho Weekly News. But, you know, there was no denying whose life had taken off faster.

RAZ: Yeah.

KLUGER: And I'd like to say that I was enthusiastic and charitable and...

RAZ: But.

KLUGER: ...But I was not.

RAZ: Yeah.

KLUGER: And, you know, it didn't reflect well on me.

RAZ: But you locked him in the closet.

KLUGER: (Laughter).

RAZ: In the fuse-box closet. You deserve it.


KLUGER: I know. I guess it takes a while, but the scales do even out after a time.


KLUGER: I listen to my young daughters talking late into the night the same way my parents, no doubt, listened to my brothers and me talking. They're part of a conversation I'm not part of, nobody else in the world is part of. And it's a conversation that can and should go on for the rest of their lives. From this will come a sense of having a permanent traveling companion, somebody with whom they road tested life before they ever had to get out and travel it on their own.

Having siblings and not making the most of those bonds is, I believe, folly of the first order. If relationships are broken and are fixable, fix them. If they work, make them even better. Failing to do so is a little like having a thousand acres of fertile farmland and never planting it. Yes, you can always get your food at the supermarket, but think what you're allowing to lie fallow. Life is short, and it's finite, and it plays for keeps. Siblings may be among the richest harvests of the time we have here. Thank you.


RAZ: Jeffrey Kluger. His book on this is called "The Sibling Effect." You can check out his entire talk at TED.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.