Thursday, August 4, 2011

I am not my sister

This is my second Toastmasters manual speech, way back from when I was still a member of Toastmasters at my old job.  The purpose of this speech is: organize your speech.

My sister sent me an NPR article entitled "Siblings Share Genes, but Rarely Personalities," by Alix Spiegel.  To quote the article, "many siblings have very different personalities.  But to researchers, this is a puzzle.  Siblings share both genes and environment.  Why, then, are they often so different?"  This is something I never really thought about while growing up.  My sister and I have always been so, so different.  But how we are different has changed.

My interest in sibling differences really peaked when I realized a) our differences transcended more than the stereotypical older child/younger child divide; b) when I learned, and continue to see, how different my husband is from his siblings--different in ways that my sister and I are not different; and c) when I talk with friends who are both the oldest, like I am, and have a sickly younger sibling, like I do.

I am going to discuss the article with you, then I will tell you about my own experiences, and finally, I'll leave you with some ideas to ponder.

Before the 1980s, psychologists believed parenting was important; siblings were not.  Then in the 1980s, Robert Plomin published a paper discussing the three main ways siblings had been studied: physical characteristics, intelligence, and personality.  Not surprisingly, siblings generally have similar physical characteristics and similar levels of intelligence.  However, Plomin says "children in the same family are more similar [in terms of personality] than children taken at random from the population, but not much more."  The actual statistic is that we are similar to our siblings, personality-wise, only about 20% of the time.

There are three theories as to why this might be the case.  The first is the theory of divergence and is Darwinian in nature, basically stating that children in the same family will develop different strengths as they compete with their siblings for their parents time, love, and attention.  An example from the article is that "if one child in the family seems to excel at academics, to avoid direct competition, the other child, consciously or unconsciously, will specialize in a different area, like socializing."

The second theory as to why siblings might have such different personalities is environmental.  The theory is, somewhat confusingly, titled the "non-shared Environment theory."  This theory basically states that we don't actually grow up in the same family as our siblings.  Siblings experience major family events such as moving or divorce at different ages and therefor their experiences differ.  Additionally, no matter how much parents say they treat their children the same way, and even if the do want to treat them the same way, in reality this is rarely actually the case. 

The third theory is that of exaggeration.  This theory "is the comparison theory, which holds that families are essentially comparison machines that greatly exaggerate even minor differences between siblings."  An example from the article is that in a family with two social children, the one who is extremely extroverted will be treated as the extrovert, and the other child will be treated as an introvert, even thought in any other family, this second child would be considered an extrovert.

My experience lines up almost directly with this article.  When people meet either my sister or me, and then they meet the other one, they always say, "Your sister is so different from you!"  They say this in a way that suggests that my sister and I are more different from each other than siblings typically are.

Under the theory of divergence, my experience is more physically Darwinian that the mental and emotional Darwinian suggested by the article.  The fact is that my sister is, and always was, more sickly than I am.  There's a fun game my coworkers and I play called did Virginia's sister have that?  It goes something like this: one coworker will say, my father's having hernia surgery next week, and I'll say, oh, my sister had that; another will say, my roommate is home all week with bronchitis, and I'll say, oh, my sister had that.

It's to the point that if we were wild animals, I"m pretty sure she would have been left for the wolves.  But we're not wild animals, and we have access to modern medicine.  So my parents spent a disproportionate amount of time taking care of, and worrying about, my sister.  From the outside, it completely makes sense that parents would spend more time and energy on the child that needs them more.  But I'm sure you can imagine that growing up like this just made me feel like my sister was totally spoiled.

In terms of our environment, my sister and I grew up in similar homes until my junior year of college, when my parents began their divorce process.  Without going into too much detail, it is sufficient to say that it was a much smoother process to me, who was living 3000 miles away at college in Montana, than it was to my sister, still in high school, at home, in New Jersey.  I think this experience, or two different experiences, is the defining factor that explains our different relationships with our parents now that we are both adults.

As far as the the theory of exaggeration goes, my sister was always the crabbier, moodier, more difficult child.  It's understandable now when you consider that she not only caught every disease, cold, and virus that went around her school,  but also that my family spent 20 years poisoning her.  Unintentionally, of course, but poisoning her nonetheless until we learned she had Celiac disease and couldn't eat gluten.  This would make anyone disagreeable.

This is not to say that I was a particularly agreeable child.  I was not.  I think, by the time my mother finished arguing with me about something, she was simply too worn out to argue with my sister.  Which is why, in my opinion, my sister has been better at getting away with doing what she wants than I am.

Also, due to my sister's temperament, I am considered the more reliable, responsible,and patient sibling.  I am not patient.  Until you compare me with my sister.

All of this is very important to me because it helps me understand my family dynamics.  Even though I don't agree with all of the parenting decisions my parents made, and continue to make, understanding the continuing cycle of the fact that mys sister and I are different causes my parents to treat us differently, causes us to become more different, at least helps me come to terms with the treatment.

In conclusion, I hope I have enabled you to think about your relationship with your siblings in terms of divergence, environment, and exaggeration.  I will leave you with a quote from this article, which was originally published for Thanksgiving,"this Thursday, as you eat your turkey, look across the table.  There you may see a brother, a sister, a step-sibling, a twin.  And maybe they're your friend, and maybe they're your enemy, but one thing is for certain: their very existence has had a profound influence on your life".

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