Loss, Siblings, and Identity

After a tough loss on Saturday, a student asked me, “How come it hurts so much to lose?” The amateur psychologist in me thinks this question goes back to an identity issue, to how we see ourselves. At some very primitive level, high school games are about one group of adolescent warriors imposing their will on another, and failure — literally not being able to defend one’s turf — can be almost emasculating.

Failing, though, goes far beyond a sports’ scoreboard; it can also involve not getting a role in a play, or being rejected from a team or a relationship. You might have thought you’d have the lead in “Hamlet” or assumed you’d make the varsity badminton team, or expected Tabitha to ask you to the Batt Ball, but when you experience rejection in any or all of these domains, you can’t help but begin to question yourself and wonder just a little, about who you really are.

Losing or learning to deal with losing is just one of many variables that can shape how we see about ourselves. In his book, “The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us,” author Jeffrey Kluger explores the impact brothers and sisters have on our identity.

This morning I’d like to share a few of Kruger’s deliberately broad generalizations in the hope that you’ll test his theories and compare them to your own life experiences.

According to Kluger first-borns (How many are here?) have higher IQ’s. (But of course, you knew that already!) First-borns are go-getters. Researchers believe they are ambitious because they have more exclusive time with their parents; as a result, they buy into their parents’ values more deeply. First-borns are more likely to become CEO’s, judges, government leaders, and astronauts. They often wind up wealthier than their siblings. Parents may invest more heavily in their first-born children because, on average, first-borns have almost 3 years of total immersion with them — an experience that their younger siblings don’t get.

In the developing world, they also tend to be bigger than their siblings in part because they have had more access to food. They also have, in general, a 3 point IQ advantage, and Kluger believes this is because the oldest get more adult attention and intellectual stimulation, and also because they benefit from having the opportunity to teach their younger siblings. After all, the best way to learn something is to teach it.

How many of you are the youngest in the family? Kruger’s research suggests that you tend to be better at reading and charming people. Charm, by the way, is what he calls an essential “low power strategy.” Think about this: if you hit the trifecta as the youngest, smallest, and weakest kid in the house, you have to develop other skills. It is a matter of survival! One way to do this is to figure out what is going on in other people’s heads. Youngest kids pay closer attention to gestures and implications, and they read people better. They are highly intuitive.

They also tend to be funny, in part because they have learned out how to use their charm to disarm. Some of history’s great satirists, Mark Twain, Voltaire, and Jonathan Swift, were the youngest children in large families. Stephen Colbert is the youngest of 11 children. The youngest, by the way, also tend to be rebels. All kids go through stages of protest, but youngest kids are most likely to get arrested.

If you are a middle child, I’ve got good and bad news for you. The bad news is that middle children don’t get the same exclusive time that parents give to the oldest and youngest kids. We are dealing, again with broad generalizations here, but middle children tend to feel less protected by family; they are more likely to feel that they need to fend for themselves. The good news is that as a response to this, they become better at forging relationships and building networks outside the family. Middle kids are great connectors. They tend to be the kid who gets invited to the Jays games.

How many of you are only children? I am a spoiled rotten only child myself and being an only child means coming of age in a world where you are outnumbered by adults. The research says that our tastes in TV, music, and art tends toward an older cohort, which makes only children often appear “cooler” than our peers.

I have to point out that Kruger’s work in this area does not jive with my personal experience. Watching “The Lawrence Welk Show” with my folks or taking Irish step dancing lessons (Ok. It was my mother’s idea.) did not make me a dude in the 70s. Some things go far beyond birth order!

How many of you have at least one sister? You are so lucky. Kruger’s research confirms the belief that sisters civilize us. In one study of college-age students, they set up speed dating scenarios, and after these 15-minute conversations, attendees were asked to rate the conversation. Boys who grew up with sisters were consistently rated higher by girls who said, more than anything else, that these boys were better listeners.

This, by the way, is a very highly prized virtue in the socialization market, so let me repeat that in case you didn’t hear it: Boys who were good listeners were rated higher by the girls who spent time with them.

Kruger’s research also looked at twins, and he discovered that Identical twins, who were raised in different families, still possess an astonishing degree of similarities. They enjoy the same kinds of practical jokes, like the same beer, like making the same noises in elevators, marry people with the same first name, and enjoy the same kinds of vacation spots.

If you have siblings, odds are you fought with them. When kids are between the ages of 2 and 5, they have a fight every 10 minutes. It’s no wonder your parents were so tired. All of this fighting, by the way, is a rehearsal for adulthood. It’s why kittens need to wrestle.

Which brings me back to the UCC guy’s first question: Why does it hurt so much to lose? It’s all a trial run, a rehearsal for the far more serious battles you will have to face in the future. So even if you came up short in a soccer game, you still got to eat breakfast Sunday morning. Your orange juice might have had a bitter taste to it, but the good news is that life goes on.

So my two take-aways from today are:

1. Yes, it hurts to lose at anything, especially if at some strange level it hits on the identity issue for you.

2. We are shaped by the wins, losses, and ties of life but more than that, we are shaped by the people and our relationships with them. You can argue that siblings may be the people in this world who do the most to define or refine who you are. Our parents leave us too early. Our spouses and partners and children come along too late. But siblings are with us for the long run…And on second thought, maybe Irish step dancing does make you sort of cool?


2 thoughts on “Loss, Siblings, and Identity

  1. Interesting issue. I think Kruger’s research suggests that once blended families have been together 6 years, they are almost indistinguishable from traditional families in roles/functions.

    And I agree that we all need a cheerleader. If I had a magic wand, I’d like to make sure that every boy at our school felt he had one “go to” adult, who always had his back, no matter what…

  2. What about half siblings. Different mothers or fathers. The family structures today are very unique. I have three adopted children. I am married for the second time offering my adult adopted children new relationship challenges. I have a half sister older than me by a generation and both my parents were dead before I was twenty five. The challenges in life can be met if we have someone who is our cheerleader and helps us grieve our losses. Without a cheer leader losses are more difficult to accept.

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