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Contrary to popular belief, St. John Paul never said “a sibling is the greatest gift you can get your child.”
For one thing, he was aware that many families are unable to provide siblings to their children, and that is okay. But he did describe how a new child is never a burden, but a “gift to its brothers, sisters, parents and entire family.”
He is right, and increasingly, research — much of which author Mary Eberstadt collected in her newest book — shows how much siblings add to your life.
Eberstadt points out that we are learning that wolves — and orcas and elephants and more — don’t live in “packs” “pods” or “herds” as we once thought. They live in families.
For them and for us, “many of the cardinal lessons in life, those crucial to survival, are learned by observing and interacting with others of their kind — especially mothers and siblings.”
I know this is true of my nine children. I helped raise them, but they taught each other everything from how to ride a bike to how to navigate the hardware store.
Eberstadt points out that other primates also rely on siblings. It has been observed that Rhesus monkeys with more siblings have more and better relationships with other monkeys.
We see that in our own children. They learn how to handle conflict — how to handle a fight, and how to keep or restore the peace.
Writes Eberstadt: “Diverse findings show that being accompanied through early life by nonparental contemporaneous others (i.e., siblings) gives children and teenagers a leg up on socialization.”
Previous generations loved talking about how your birth order benefits you whether you’re an older mentor sibling, a middle child mediator, or a youngest child getting attention.
Pew research notes this talk is largely irrelevant to many families now and cites an article saying middle children are “an American rarity, just when America could use them the most.”
In fact, research shows that siblings learn empathy from one another regardless of birth order.
Siblings “stop the scourge of loneliness,” writes Eberstadt.
I found this true of my own children. When I asked them to tell me why they liked having siblings, their answers included: “You always have someone to play with,” and “If you don’t get along with one sibling, there are always eight others to try.”
In a Catholic couples group we attend, everyone knows how important “date night” is to spouses, giving you time and privacy to talk about important things, a break from home life, and fanning the spark of romance.
But many couples find it impossible to date because of the expense and hassle of finding a babysitter. We don’t have that problem — we have built-in babysitters now, and our children will have them for life (see No. 7).
Falling family sizes have come alongside growing levels of mental illness, including anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and self-harm. These are the same kind of behaviors that zoos see in animals that are torn from their families, Eberstadt points out.
It stands to reason: We are built for community and feel out of place without it. The kindness of others comforts us and their rough edges sharpen us.
One of the great unexpected joys of parenthood has been seeing how well my 9-year-old son takes care of my 2-year-old granddaughter. Uncle Anthony is not that much older than his nephews and nieces — and he will know them for life.
Eberstadt points out that the fewer siblings now means future generations will lose the web of family relationships — aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws — that provide a crucial support system.
“The sibling relationship is the one familial relationship potentially capable of enduring across all or most of one’s life,” writes Eberstadt.
From childhood to adulthood, she writes, siblings “serve as confidants and sources of nonjudgmental social support in times of stress.”
A study Eberstadt cites shows that the likelihood of divorce later in life can be predicted by the number of siblings one has now: more siblings mean less divorce.
Growing up seeing the opposite sex up close makes siblings “more confident and successful in the romance market,” she writes, and siblings teach you how to “share resources, bargain and take turns” — prerequisites for marriage.
Elderly parents present challenges to their children: Who will take care of them? Who will bear the cost of professional care?
Many hands make light work, and many siblings make it easier to deal with parents later on.
This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Talo Ucera, Flickr.