Spinning our wheels is a lifetime habit for rival siblings

ALICE STEINBACH

October 11, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

I am told by a family member that when I was 5 I had to be physically restrained from throwing myself in front of a new two-wheel bike my older brother was riding. The emotion behind this semi-Tolstoyian gesture was not, however, the suicidal despair of an Anna Karenina but the juvenile jealousy that drives children in their early years.

My brother was given the shiny black bike for his 8th birthday and I -- mad with jealousy because I was allowed only to ride a tricycle -- planned to call attention to the unfairness of the situation by flinging myself under its wheels.

The plan, alas, backfired when my mother pulled me out of harm's way.

Such an incident, of course, is all too typical of the sibling rivalry that runs like a river through the landscape of childhood.

And while such feelings date back at least to Cain and Abel, suddenly the idea of re-examining the impact of sibling rivalries is a hot new topic. At least three self-help books addressing the subject are out, or due out, this fall.

In a review of one such book, "Mixed Feelings: Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation Among Brothers and Sisters," the book's author, Francine Klagsbrun, comments on the lingering effects of sibling rivalry, saying: "If you felt you could never compete with your older brother, you're probably going to have a hard time getting a promotion at work, because deep down you feel like you can't make the grade."

I was quite surprised to read this since my own experience completely contradicts such a notion. The fact is -- despite my feelings of being unable to compete with an older brother -- I once received a promotion at work. In 1978.

And believe me, I have never felt that just because I drive a 6-year-old Honda and my brother drives a brand-new, shiny, black Schwinn -- I mean, Mercedes -- that he's making the grade and I'm not.

But look, nobody ever said science couldn't be manipulated -- just like younger sisters -- to produce a desired effect. So one must take such observations with a grain of salt.

However, for those of you who are not as sure of your own unconscious motivations as I am, here are three questions to ask yourself to determine if you're still competing with a sibling:

1. Have I been taking tennis lessons twice a week for the last 25 years because of a buried wish to beat a sibling just once in some contest?

2. Am I stockpiling money so that the nursing home I enter 40 years from now will be a fancier nursing home than that entered by a sibling?

3. Did I blow up last year at the family Christmas party because Mom gave a sibling better toys -- I mean, presents -- than she gave me?

And speaking of Mom, did yours have a stock line when you complained that a sibling was getting better treatment than you?

Something along the lines of: "You should be ashamed of yourself for thinking that a shiny, black, two-wheel bike is a better present than paper dolls. Don't you know that children in India don't have paper dolls?"

Or: "So you didn't get a shiny, black, two-wheel bike! Big deal! As long as you have your health you shouldn't complain."

Or: "You should be thankful you have feet to pedal that tricycle, young lady!"

Growing up, I always thought that as you grew older and more secure in your accomplishments you would see how foolish an emotion jealousy is. Such a belief, by the way, accounts for why so many of us are willing to attend our high school reunions.

Which reminds me: Did I imagine it or did it really happen that at my last high school reunion four friends and two teachers asked me for a detailed accounting of my brother's life since high school?

I suppose that no one is immune to feelings of jealousy. Still, I expect that some of us pick occupations that offer more $H opportunities for comparing one's work to another's work with this result: Jealousy.

Writers, I think, fall into this category. Dentists don't. Dentists, I believe, seldom look into the mouth of a new patient and think: "Holy Toledo! I've never seen such incredible crowns! They make my crowns look like a joke! Who am I kidding? My older brother was right. I should have gone into real estate."

And speaking of real estate, did I mention my brother lives in a house three times the size of mine? Or that it has a swimming pool? No big deal, of course.

I mean, look: I still have feet, and children in India still don't have paper dolls. And I say as long as you have your health, what's to complain about? Certainly not a shiny, black, two-wheel Schwinn bike.

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