I’m an only child, an introvert, raised by a single mother who was also an introvert. Nunneries were raucous compared to our house. I now have two boys who are the dictionary definition of “rambunctious.” But the biggest learning curve hasn’t been the noise, or even raising boys—it’s been raising siblings. As an only, I have a rosy, idealized vision of what the sibling relationship is like: Clearly, if I’d had a sister or a brother, we would have spent every evening curled up together in a big chair, telling each other all our secrets. We’d always get along, have each other’s backs, and never disagree. When I tell people who have siblings this vision, they chuckle. “Maybe,” they say. Or, “sometimes.” But I have noticed that siblings do know a few things that onlies don’t. Below, 9 things only siblings understand.
1. You won’t laugh with anyone like you’ll laugh with your sibling. My boys crack each other up regularly, to the point of weeping, helpless laughter. Just when I think they’ve gotten hold of themselves, one will emit the tiniest little snort and they’re rolling on the floor again. That kind of bonding is unique to siblings. When my husband and his sister are together, one of them will recite just one line from a Bugs Bunny cartoon and that’s it—they’re suddenly crying with laughter.
2. If you’re in a tough situation, a sibling’s mere presence is a comfort. Sometimes when my son is overwhelmed by playground dynamics, he’ll head over to his younger brother and “help” him dig in the sand, or “help” him climb the slide. My younger son, while doing just fine on his own, is usually delighted by the attention. My older son, meanwhile, soothes himself by playing with his brother for while, regroups, and then heads back into the fray.
3. They know better than anyone how to needle you. My boys have an unerring sense of how to irritate or annoy or hurt each other—better than anyone else in the world. My friends who have siblings tell me this particular skill only gets more honed in adulthood.
4. Rejection from a sibling is the worst. My boys sometimes play together beautifully, building forts and train tracks for hours on end. But then, mysteriously, one of them will suddenly decide that he wants the other one to get lost. The tracks are scooped up, the fort is dismantled, and suddenly one of the boys is left behind while the other one goes off to play by himself. As much as I try to teach them to be kind to each other, they sometimes really hurt each other’s feelings, and it’s so much worse than a reprimand from me or a spat with a friend.
5. They understand pride. My older son is so tremendously proud of his brother whenever he learns some new little thing: how to put on his shoes or brush his teeth, for example. Somehow seeing a sibling achieve something is both a delight in and of itself, but also a reflection of self—pride in your tribe.
6. They understand that pride can be mixed with envy. Right on the heels of “I’m so proud of you” is “I want that.”
7. Siblings show you what’s possible. My husband is the youngest of 10 kids. The nine above him are all very accomplished in myriad ways, and he credits them with showing him so many different paths: classes to take, hobbies to try out, careers to explore.
8. Just because you’re siblings doesn’t mean you’re friends. Of the people I know with big families, they all say, about the varying degrees of closeness: “I love them all. But I’m closer to this one and not so much that one, and there’s no real reason for that.” Compatibility seems to be random—some people are best friends with their sibs and some aren’t, and that’s not anyone’s fault.
9. They’re the strongest link to your own childhood and to your parents. As an only, I often feel a tinge of sadness that I don’t have any shared memories with a contemporary—only my mother. Siblings, because they have the same memories you do, from the same perspective, keep that part of your life alive. The past and present are more integrated for my husband and his siblings than they are for me, for example, and that “back-up” memory is a huge gift.
Don’t get me wrong—being an only has major advantages. But one of the great joys of my life is that my boys have each other, and so far at least, seem to like each other pretty well. I hope it will last, well, a lifetime—long after they’re grown, long after we’re gone. This is my fervent wish for my boys’ relationship: May Bugs Bunny continue to crack them up forever.