Back to top

This week, Selena Gomez (in the role of Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby) will help re-introduce Beverly Cleary’s classic sibling rivals, Beezus and Ramona , to a new generation of youth. For those of you (women, at least) who didn’t read this series in your younger years, the series’ concept should be pretty easy to grasp…Older sister, Beezus, vacillates between frustration and reluctant appreciation of her inventive and clever little sister, Ramona. The younger sister worships and tortures (often simultaneously) her predecessor, and insists on being engaged by her. Antics ensue.

Youth researchers have known for a long time that sibling status is a factor that counts when recruiting a “representative” sample of kids, tweens or teens. A combination of academic influence and real-life observation has told us that having an older sibling, a younger sibling, or none at all makes a difference in the way that kids and parents see the world around them – including the products they prefer, the shows they watch and the things that matter to them.

And in the August issue of Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano explores the impact that siblings really have on one another.

Experts like British psychologist Judy Dunn and Birth-Order expert Frank Sulloway from the University of California at Berkeley note that during childhood, the relationship with one’s siblings often trumps the connection with friends and almost everyone else in kids’, tweens’ and teens’ lives. Dunn calls the relationship among siblings almost “uncomfortably close.” Dunn notes that babies as young as 12-months-old are sensitive to the treatment of others – siblings in particular. They are especially attuned to differences in treatment, and even if they perceive that an injustice works in their favor, they may feel anxious or insecure as a resul

But most parents insist that they treat and have raised all their children in the same way (in the U.S. at least – not so much in other cultures, where acknowledging the rights of the first born are not considered shameful or unseemly). So what’s going on?

According to these experts, parents might believe that their kids have all grown up in the same household, but, as Sulloway says, “every child grows up in a unique micro-environment.” Certainly, parents are different the second time they raise an infant, toddler, kid, tween or teen. They see the “rules” differently and they learn lessons that they wish they knew the first time around. But even if this was not the case, Child #2 or #3 has a few new factors to deal with: namely, their siblings. And being part of a group of kids, versus being “THE kid” can change them in the short-term, and some psychologists argue, in the long-term.

A few effects of the family dynamic:

  • Perhaps because they have to find a way to “stand out” in the eyes of their parents, siblings tend to occupy different niches in the family versus one another. Said another way: “I can’t be like my sibling because that role within my family is taken.”
  • Because of this, the youngest tends to have fewer options…So what do they tend to do? Break the rules – and reject the notion that mom and dad’s opinion matters most. (Interestingly, many of the most disruptive ideas across domains like art, science, etc. have come from the youngest sibling in a family – like “crazy Copernicus” or “daredevil Darwin.”)
  • The closer they are in age, the more they must, developmentally speaking, engage in “de-identification.” In other words, they have to take on really different roles in relationship to their siblings to get noticed.
  • Many psychologists believe that sibling relationships serve as models that we live with for the rest of our lives. Difficulty in relating to siblings can translate into challenges in relationships later in life. And as Marano notes, “feeling like you didn’t measure up at home can color how you perceive your own self-worth and see injustice in work, marriage and beyond.”
  • And not surprisingly, some of these “strategies” that are intended to help siblings stand out from the crowd can become permanently encoded in people’s personalities. But it’s important to note that many psychologists believe that these strategies are merely situational and that most people “move on.”

And what about the 18% of us who are the only children – a group that is likely to grow, with more and more parents’ choice to have children later in life, making one seem like enough. We know less about this group, beyond the many stereotypes associated with being an “only”…But we do know one famous “only” is about to explore sibling life through art: Selena Gomez. J

What does this mean for marketers, programmers and product developers? We may understand that brothers and sisters matter, but with the youth audience already so small and fragmented, could we ever possibly market by birth order? Could we really include sibling status in the target descriptions of our creative briefs or media manifestos? Probably not. But we should keep the powerful influence of siblings in mind when we think about showing “real life” in ads or shows, when we consider the samples we include in our custom research designs and even when we think about products/packaging designed for the “whole family.”

We’d love to hear from you about other ways that sibling love or rivalry impact how you think about your youth or family brand or business.