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Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different.

Heredity can explain many of the similarities between children growing up in the same family. It cannot clarify the reasons why children experience the same environment differently.

The authors believe that sibling differences are rooted in nature, not nurture. They also take issue with the common assumption that children experience their environment similarly.

Separate Lives is a combined effort of a husband and wife team, Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin, professors of human development at Pennsylvania State University.

Growing up in the same family, the authors declare, does not make children alike beyond the similarity that occurs for reasons of heredity. There is no single environment in the home, they note. There are, in fact, distinct environments for each child, and these differences can have a surprisingly deep influence on each child's personality, interests and eventual occupation.

Reviewing contrasts in the lives of famous people who grew up with a sibling, the authors relate that Mark Twain, as a boy, was a hell-raiser. His younger brother, Henry, was a "sweet, docile child who did everything that was expected of him."

Separate Lives also explores the relationship between brothers and sisters. Henry James, younger brother of outgoing, intellectually impressive philosopher/psychologist William James, withdrew at an early age into the world of books and imagination to fashion a fictional world, based on the realities around him, in which fathers are made to disappear, mothers are put in their place and elder brothers are vanquished.

Separate Lives discusses notable contrasts in the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English poet. Shelley himself was exuberant, mischievous, domineering and daring. His four sisters adored him and were exceedingly complaint followers.

Among the great writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, examples of sibling differences abound, the authors observe. "The Brontes were a famous example: Bramwell, passionate, violent, uncontrolled; Maria, who was the model for Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, mildness, fortitude, wisdom, and patience personified; Charlotte, desperately vulnerable to pain and shyness.

"The Proust brothers, too, differed notably ...Marcel arouses anxiety and admiration and Robert the solid figure who pleases and obeys.

"Leo Tolstoy was far more emotionally intense than his brothers Nicholas, Sergey and Dmitry. A tutor described their differences: 'Nicholas is both willing and able; Sergey is able but not willing; Dmitry is willing but not able, and Leo is neither.'"

The book is an excellent source of information about well-known figures of the past. Perhaps another investigator inspired by this work will delineate the striking differences between contemporary family groups. Richard Nixon may have been starkly different than his "black sheep" brother. The Kennedy males had a common interest in pursuing the opposite sex, but showed little similarity in personality. Ronald Reagan's brother revealed little of himself during the president's terms in office; most apparent was his intense need to avoid public scrutiny.

Separate Lives is an important contribution because it opens areas for further investigation. Too many parents are heedless in recognizing their children's individuality. Too often, growing children are compared to each other, contributing jealousy and resentment rather than inspiration and role models for emulation.

The concept that no two people are really alike requires no constant affirmation. Breeders of dogs and other animals know that their animals are highly individualistic. They recognize the phenomenon of genetics without question and long before the gene was recognized as an integral part of heredity, those who dealt with trained animals understood the power of biochemical individuality.

The authors show how many parents unconsciously favor one child over another because that child reminds them of themselves or of someone else they admire. Conversely, they sometimes neglect a child because that child may have traits that they dislike in themselves. "Children can be very sensitive to subtle clues," they note. "A parent will laugh at one child's jokes more often or look at his brother more frequently. A relatively small difference in treatment may make a big difference in development."
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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