The secret world of sibling rivalry

"He mostly bosses me around and I mostly annoy him heaps until he gives me what I want" … Josh Gavellas, 11, with his ...
"He mostly bosses me around and I mostly annoy him heaps until he gives me what I want" … Josh Gavellas, 11, with his brother Lachlan, 7, left. Photo: Ben Rushton

Some siblings always seem to be fighting. But the yelling and punching is not the whole story. Beneath the surface siblings engage in a complex web of bribes, deals, threats and bartering - negotiations so skilled they rival a Middle East peace round, new research reveals.

The study of 90 children aged 5 to 17 from 30 families shows siblings have to learn sophisticated skills to survive in the same house - and these skills may be useful in later life.

"Parents are more likely to see the conflict and rivalry, while overlooking the intricate nature of siblings' interactions," said Samantha Punch, a co-author of the study, published in the international journal Childhood.

In in-depth interviews, siblings often used words such as "barter", "trade", "swap", "bargain" and "deal" to explain how they negotiated with each other, bought themselves some peace, or got their own way. The most commonly used term was "bribe".

Money was used as a means to encourage each other to do things, such as tidy up a room, and "repay" favours. But sweets and toys were also common currencies of exchange. "I've got a Gameboy and Pokemon and he absolutely loves that so I, like, use that as a condition. Sort of like 'if you do this you can play that tonight,' " said a 13-year-old middle child of his 15-year-old brother.

The study confirmed older siblings had distinct advantages, and that birth order was more important than gender in shaping sibling relations.

The study confirmed older siblings had distinct advantages, and that birth order was more important than gender in shaping sibling relations. Parents were more likely to believe the oldest child; they were also physically more powerful and had more knowledge. But the study found birth order was not as defining as other research claimed.

Younger siblings could learn the tricks of bartering and negotiation with age, and were often able to resist the demands of older siblings and even boss them around. They took particular delight in using knowledge about an older sibling's misdemeanours to strike a bargain.

The study found sibling negotiations were "skilled accomplishments" involving a "high level of intricacy" and nuance, and alert to a fair and just outcome. But there were also instances of very young children being duped into unfair exchanges.

Dr Punch, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Stirling, in Scotland, said sibling relations were as much about conflict resolution as stark conflict. Forced to share a small space and knowing much about each other's bad habits, siblings tended to see each other as "annoying". Strategies to buy peace and quiet were crucial. "The complexity of negotiations and bargaining going on between siblings can be quite subtle," Dr Punch said, "and parents may have a tendency to focus on the negative."

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In the Gavellas household, Joshua, 11, says he sometimes buys peace and quiet by letting his brother Lachlan, 7, use his Xbox. "You pretty much have to give in sometimes when it comes to younger brothers," he said.

Lachlan said: "He mostly bosses me around and I mostly annoy him heaps until he gives me what I want."

Their mother Leanne, said, "I sometimes hear the little negotiations that go on. I leave it to them until it gets violent."

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