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The Gift of a Sibling

Kids! Come here—it's important," my husband calls. Henry, 6, and Eleanor, 4, clamber onto the sofa, looking vaguely worried that some long-forgotten transgression has just been discovered. Spilled juice behind the cushions? Yet another unflushed toilet? Margaret, almost 2, obliviously sucks her thumb.

"Guess what! Mommy has some big news to tell you," Daddy continues.

Everyone leans forward, but before I can say a word, Eleanor speaks up, eagerly: "Is Henry moving out?"

So much for sibling revelry.

There I was, excited to tell my daughter she'd be gaining a new brother or sister in a matter of months, and there she was, hoping to ditch one.

I immediately thought back to when we told our beloved firstborn—the light of our lives—that he was about to become a big brother. "You got a ball in there for me?" Henry, then 20 months, had asked, peering under my shirt. Saying no, I'd felt like a traitor. A friend once told her daughter that come Christmas, she'd be getting "a new, teeny-tiny baby." The toddler looked her square in the eye and said, "No thanks. How about a new, teeny-tiny puppy instead?"

Uh, sorry.

Sibling relationships are complex from the start. There are classes and self-help groups galore on dating, marriage, divorce. Shrinks love to focus on the parent-child bond. Grandparents' rights are hotly debated. But the ties and feelings that are unique to siblings simmer along, largely unexamined. You don't pick your brother or sister. You have no particular obligation to this person (other than "Be nice"). Although you share genes, Mom and Dad's household rules, and maybe even hand-me-downs and bedrooms, you may have little in common.

Yet you're thrown together endlessly. And naturally you each want, desperately, the same thing: your parents' undiminished love and attention—an impossible quest that pits you against your siblings even as you depend on one another for support, entertainment, and companionship. "Can't live with you, can't live without you" is how my grandmother puts it.

"I hate you. Hey, where are you going? I wanna come" is what my kids say. I've known people who put off having a second child because they couldn't bear to take anything away from their beloved number one. But what we sometimes forget is that having another child is not about dividing the firstborn's allotment of love. It's about giving him more.

Now, after four kids, I no longer feel guilty about having inflicted siblinghood on my babies. Instead, I feel confident knowing I've given them the following:

What a sibling provides

A ready playmate. My first two children, born 22 months apart, are as different as X's and Y's can be. He likes soldiers and Indians. She prefers her playthings soft and pink. But in a pinch, his little green army men set up camp in her dollhouse. Or the two stage puppet shows with such names as "Godzilla vs. Barbie." One very dull day, "Henry-etta" decked himself out in Eleanor's assorted tutus, looking like Jo March at karate class. It's a permanent playdate, minus all the hassles of phone calls, dropoffs, and pickups. And when two (or more) kids are enjoying each other's company, it means they don't need me.

A built-in energy release. The flip side of playing together, of course, is disintegrated play—bickering, poking, name-calling. They've got to let off steam somehow. I try to think of this as the background noise of a happy home. How quiet it would be with just my son and the lone clicks of his Game Boy!

Enhanced social skills. Having someone approximately your own size around presents the opportunity to practice valuable interpersonal communication—like negotiation ("Give me the red crayon!"), accurate reporting ("Mom! Henry pulled my hair!"), and persuasive argument ("Did not!" "Did too!").

A coconspirator. The first time I ever heard my children whispering together, I was charmed. And slightly paranoid, because that's when I realized they had a relationship that sometimes has absolutely nothing to do with their dad or me.

A helper (sometimes). As the parent of more than one child, I've witnessed such beautiful scenes as a 5-year-old tying a 2-year-old's shoe and a 2-year-old sticking a bottle in a crying infant's mouth. Some educators favor multi-age classes because the older ones develop confidence by helping and the littler ones learn by the big kids' example. Around here we call it dinnertime.

An accurate sense of themselves within the world. Only children are a little like pets, cosseted and lavished with undivided focus. Having a sibling teaches a child to wait and take turns. She learns that she's not the center of the universe—which, while ego-busting, is also rather healthy, I think.

A memory backup. Who can remember the Banana Splits theme song? Who knows the games we used to play by the lake in the summer? Not my mom or dad. My sister and brother. Maybe someday Margaret will wonder about the words to the Blue's Clues jingles or what went on in the backseat on car trips. I won't be able to reminisce with her, but her siblings will.

Friends forever. The nicest thing about the sibling bond is that it can be life's longest-lasting relationship. Longer than their relationship with me or their dad, probably, or with their friends, or with their spouses.

Whether my children remain close will be up to them. But long after Henry really does move out, I'm hopeful they'll have had a good enough time with one another that they'll still keep in touch. And still love one another, in all the complicated ways they do now.

Parenting contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of Momfidence: An Oreo Never Killed Anybody and Other Secrets of Happier Parenting. 

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