Sisters Book Club: The Sibling Effect by Jeffrey Kluger

The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us by Jeffrey Kluger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Sibling Effect was the June selection of the Sisters Book Club. Visit our Goodreads Group and join Sisters Book Club for our July read, The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown!

The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About UsThe Sibling Effect begins with Kluger’s personal observations of his relationship with his three brothers, and then Kluger tries to explain what he’s observed using the relatively small and often contradictory research available about sibling relationships. The book would have worked better if he’d just picked one or the other, and probably would have worked best if he’d just chosen to make it a memoir and dropped the pretense of science entirely.

Kluger appears to want to include all of the research he found and then, unwilling to restrict himself to one conclusion, he came to two or more contradictory conclusions. For example, in the chapter that discusses single-child families, within two pages he says first that only children are more socially adept because they spend more time alone than other children and then that only children are more socially adept because they spend almost all of their time with other children because their parents put them in full-time day care early on and later can afford to add hours of daily extracurriculars to their already full school day. So which is it? Do onlies spend lots of time alone, or do they spend hardly any time alone? And which is more socially beneficial, anyway? Or is it possible that for some people, alone time is better and for others, time in groups is better and that’s why the research results are contradictory?

Or maybe what’s even more likely is that the researchers (not to mention Kluger himself) have difficulty designing studies and interpreting the results from outside of their own assumptions and biases about family relationships. The section about only children is one example of the class bias present throughout the book. Kluger seems to have difficulty seeing outside of a middle-/upper-middle-class lifestyle in which high-quality day care and a multitude of extracurricular activities are available to children.

He also has the habit of taking a trait or situation, from postpartum depression to parental favoritism to sibling rivalry, and then attempting to argue that the trait or situation is beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint. Mostly this seems to play out in the idea that parents can minimize their losses/maximize their children’s chance of reaching adulthood by funneling more resources to one or two of them and letting the others eke out what they can from the dregs. Humans aren’t birds, and I don’t think it’s a very strong analogy to compare our child-rearing practices to eggs in a nest.

Even with these irritations, I didn’t hate the book. It helped me look at my relationship with my own children and the relationships within my family of origin with an eye for favoritism, which was interesting if not directly helpful. I also found very interesting the equation to calculate the number of one-on-one relationships present in any size family. I would have been interested to read about how sibling relationships change as children are separated from their siblings to enter school.

I did quite enjoy the parts about Kluger’s own family; I would have liked to read more about those relationships. This would have been a stronger, more compelling book if Kluger had made it a memoir, leaving out a good chunk of the research he did and focussing primarily on his own sibling relationships.

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