In Western society, relationships among siblings usually comprise the longest relationships experienced by individuals across the life span. An ascribed as opposed to a voluntary status, siblingship is conferred either by birth or by law (as in the case of step-or adopted siblings). Factors that structure the sibling experience include family size, BIRTH ORDER, and age spacing, as well as class, ethnic and cultural traditions, as well as special circumstances. For example, variations in Native American kinship and lineage systems and the separation of African-American families under SLAVERY influenced the character of sibling relationships. Twinship, which occupies a special place in all known societies, also determines the nature of sibling relationships. With twins or MULTIPLE BIRTHS, the differentiation of siblings by age is blurred, and individual autonomy may be reduced by the social identification of the children as one unit.

Gender shapes individuals' family experiences across cultures too, but it does not necessarily represent the dominant influence in sibling relationships, which are often relatively egalitarian rather than hierarchical. While power or status differences may exist, these are not necessarily defined by gender. In childhood, siblings typically experience intimate

The Artist's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (c. 1756), Thomas Gainsborough. Evidence suggests that in the eighteenth century, sibling relationships became closer and less competitive than they had been in previous ages. Brothers and sisters came to rely on each other for emotional support and companionship throughout their lives. © National Gallery Collection; By kind permission of the trustees of the .

daily contact. This changes in adulthood, but a growing body of evidence indicates that their relationships endure over time and distance, and that sibling influence continues to old age. Various studies of sibling interactions in western, industrialized societies in the second half of the twentieth century suggest that these relationships are powerful and significant, whether they are characterized by harmony or by tension. Cross-cultural data from other societies document the universal importance of sibling relationships in human lives.

Social scientific research has yielded a range of insights about the nature and significance of sibling ties since the middle of the twentieth century, but relatively few scholars have examined this aspect of family life systematically from a social historical perspective. Some of the earliest discussions of sibling themes in Western culture appear in the Old Testament and in classical mythology. These suggest an early cultural recognition of the significance of sibling relationships and of the inherent potential for both harmony and conflict. As with other aspects of the history of childhood, it is difficult to document children's direct experiences of sibling interactions. Moreover the available evidence reflects an almost exclusively elite or middle-class perspective. Some historians suggest that in the context of high child mortality rates, premodern children learned not to invest emotionally in relationships with siblings, but very little direct evidence exists about this aspect of childhood prior to the eighteenth century.

Eighteenth-Century Siblings

Traditional INHERITANCE practices and marriage customs appear to have fostered sibling rivalry and conflict in early modern Western society. Primogeniture and the reliance on birth order as the principal criterion for permitting daughters to marry discouraged closeness and generated sibling competition based on gender and age. Although historians are just beginning to examine this area, some research suggests that the decline of these practices in eighteenth-century America, and eventually across the Atlantic, shaped a new climate of cooperation and relative equality in which sisters and brothers played central roles in one another's emotional and social lives throughout the life span.

For example, Lorri Glover argues that siblings in eighteenth-century elite families in South Carolina exercised profound influence over one another. Their relationships differed significantly from the hierarchical relationships in both the patriarchal household and the larger social order of colonial America. During the early colonial period, when high mortality rates and migration patterns frequently disrupted relationships between parents and children in South Carolina, siblings often turned to each other as the most reliable and enduring elements of the family. As demographic instability diminished, the utilitarian relationships gave way to more egalitarian ties based in mutuality. In large families, children saw themselves as close companions; they often knew one another better than they knew their parents. Over the course of the eighteenth century, sisters and brothers grew increasingly interdependent, providing vital practical and emotional support from childhood to old age.

Certainly siblings in South Carolina, and in other regions as well, experienced conflict and discord, but such problems stemmed less from any rivalry based on birth order or gender than from other factors. For example, age gaps sometimes created sibling relationships that resembled those of parents and children rather than those of peers. As in contemporary society, differences in education, life stage, or personality, along with the intrinsic complexity of interactions in blended families, could also create difficulties. Generally, however, eighteenth-century culture and society supported the development of strong and lasting sibling ties. Sisters and brothers constructed relationships that bypassed many, although not all, of the patriarchal norms that governed eighteenth-century households. As children and as adults, women deferred to fathers and husbands, but they related to brothers as equals and partners in family life.

While the bonds between sisters and brothers challenged the prevailing gender norms, those between sisters anchored eighteenth-century female culture, and often represented the central relationships in women's lives. Adult women were frequently called upon to care for or educate younger sisters. Sisters close in age cherished lifelong intimacy as "best" friends, and young women found separation from a beloved sister painful and distressing, even when such separation resulted from ostensibly happy events such as courtship and marriage.

Nineteenth-Century Siblings

Nineteenth-century sibling relationships in middle-class families reflect the influence of a family culture that stressed the spiritual nature of LOVE; the importance of loving relationships in family life, particularly between mothers and children; and the importance of harmony, cooperation, and affection between siblings. Middle-class Victorian parents emphasized family continuity; they urged children to be loyal to their siblings and to look after younger sisters and brothers in the event of parental death. Thus, although the economic fortunes of individuals were no longer directly linked to their sibling status, the psychological importance of sibling unity increased. In this context, middle-class childhood experience often involved deep love for siblings. JEALOUSY certainly existed, but neither parents nor child-rearing literature described it or defined it as an issue of concern until the end of the century.

Intimate, lifelong relationships with sisters continued to play major roles in the lives of individual women, and in the nineteenth-century female world more generally. Young women frequently experienced severe emotional anguish when courtship and marriage displaced sibling bonds. Like their eighteenth-century counterparts, older children often took charge of younger siblings, and older sisters became surrogate mothers to younger sisters or stepsisters. In families where children received most of their early education at home, siblings served as the primary intellectual and emotional outlets for one another.

The prescriptive literature of this period portrayed the tie between sisters and brothers as a model of pure, Christian love between men and women. However, the brother-sister relationship provided more than a cultural ideal. As the first peer relationship with the opposite sex for most children, it offered a natural and comfortable context in which boys and girls socialized more easily than they did at school. In this sense, sibling relationships bridged the gap between the nineteenth-century male and female worlds. Parents communicated specific expectations for these interactions: young boys were required to protect and defend their sisters; young girls were required to perform household services for their brothers. These obligations fostered reciprocity and closeness, but they also promoted inequality and gender separation. Nevertheless, issues of power did not preclude genuine love and affection, and like their predecessors, nineteenth-century sisters and brothers played significant roles for each other throughout their lives.

For enslaved AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHILDREN, separation from siblings often precluded the sort of intimacy experienced by their white peers. Nevertheless evidence of affective ties between slave and former slave adult siblings can be discerned, as in the frequent practice of naming a child for a parent's sibling who had been sold away from his or her family.

Twentieth-Century Siblings

The turn of the twentieth century ushered in a new period in the history of sibling relationships. Although the birthrate in America had been declining since the first decade of the nineteenth century, small sibling sets of two or three only became common in the middle class around 1890, while rural and working class families tended to remain larger. Smaller family size, along with the Victorian emphasis on maternal-child love, fostered an increase in the intensity of middle-class mothering. In this context, children competed for maternal affection and the arrival of a new baby was much more disruptive than in earlier middle-class families. Moreover, extended high school experiences for twentieth-century adolescents and closer child spacing meant that older siblings had fewer opportunities for involvement in child rearing. These conditions fostered an increase in sibling rivalry and jealousy.

Parents and child-rearing manuals now defined sibling rivalry as a serious issue. It was portrayed as an inevitable occurrence, a threat to children's safety, and an experience that could lead to problems in adulthood. In the past, sibling jealousy over inheritance or marriage prerogatives had created tension between young adults, but now such rivalry was identified with young children. Although adult concern over this issue exaggerated the dimensions of the problem, twentieth-century family conditions did encourage an increase in sibling rivalry.

Family culture from the 1920s through the 1980s discussed sibling relationships more in terms of peaceful coexistence than deep love. Less emphasis on sharing and more emphasis on separate rooms and separate toys fostered a sense of separateness that extended to adulthood. Starting in the 1960s as more mothers began to work outside the home and children spent time with babysitters, day care providers, and even fathers, intense cultural anxiety over sibling rivalry declined. The growing influence of peer culture at a younger age and more involvement with age peers provided an anti-dote to sibling jealousy. As the birthrate continued to decline, more single-child families and more space between children also helped to mitigate the problem. Furthermore, by the 1950s it was no longer common for children to assist in caring for younger siblings. Yet new conditions–more blended families and half-siblings, for example–could be conducive to sibling rivalry.

The sense of change in sibling experiences is clear, but some continuities link the twentieth century with earlier periods. Thus, for example, research in the 1950s revealed that adults who grew up in families of six or more children remembered a self-sufficient childhood world of play, a group spirit, and older siblings who disciplined their younger brothers and sisters. These respondents consistently referred to the importance of siblings in adolescence and reported closeness throughout adulthood. They mentioned rivalry less frequently than subjects from small families.

See also: Emotional Life; Family Patterns.


Atkins, Annette. 2001. We Grew Up Together: Brothers and Sisters in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Cicirelli, Victor G. 1995. Sibling Relationships Across the Lifespan. New York: Plenum Press.

Crispell, Diane. 1996 "The Sibling Syndrome." American Demo-graphics 18: 24–30.

Dunn, Judy. 1985. Sisters and Brothers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glover, Lorri. 2000. All Our Relations: Blood Ties and Emotional Bonds among the Early South Carolina Gentry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gutman, Herbert G. 1976. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750–1925. New York: Vintage Books.

Mintz, Steven. 1983. A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Stearns, Peter N. 1988. "The Rise of Sibling Jealousy in the Twentieth Century." In Emotion and Social Change: Toward a New Psychohistory, ed. Carol Z. Stearns and Peter N. Stearns. New York: Holmes and Meier.

Stearns, Peter N. 1989. Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History. New York: New York University Press.

Stewart, Elizabeth A. 2000. Exploring Twins: Towards a Social Analysis of Twinship. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Stowe, Steven M. 1987. Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.