Family Resemblance Ends at Personality

Two peas in a pod? Probably not.

Thanksgiving’s on the way and that means families will reunite. Mine, too. Thursday we’ll drive from New York City to my brother’s house in Bethesda, MD.  I live in a 2 bedroom apartment, my brother lives in a 4 bedroom house.   I’ve never owned a car, my brother has owned several SUVs.  My brother’s a movie buff. Me, I like books. But we look a lot alike.

My mom would say that my brother and I have been different from when we were very young.  I’d say the same about my own (fraternal) twins. As brothers and sisters, or brothers and brothers or sisters and sisters go, my family is pretty typical.  For the past 30 years, psychologists have been exploring why siblings can share genes and cognitive abilities but not personality types.  They have three big theories for why this is so often the case.According to an NPR story on siblings, the first theory for sibling difference comes from Frank Sulloway a scholar evolution. He calls it Divergence. In a competitive environment, siblings have to get attention from their parents so they pursue separate interests. One kids excels at basketball, the other chooses chess because why compete in the same thing?

The next theory is labeled “environment,” and it says that even though an environment like a house might look the same, it’s different for each sibling.  A first born was born into a house that’s not at all like that of a second born, etc. etc.

Finally, researchers propose that comparisons have a lot to do with why siblings’ personalities end up being so different.  One child is the “loner,” the other the “social one.”  The “loner” may be plenty friendly but if the the “social” kids is extra bubbly, then the label becomes destiny.

While part of me is intrigued by these theories, and I want to figure out which one is most appropriate for me and my brother and which for my kids, another wonders why we’re at all surprised that people raised in the same family are different.

We’re always intrigued when studies of identical twins  separated at birth find that the twins share many traits.  It’s like we want to believe that our personalities are all about our genes, or we want to believe they’re all about our environment. Why do we resist the answer that it’s all a great big mix?  We’ve had thousands of years of human history and hundreds of Thanksgiving to learn that some people are all about the sweet potato (me), others the stuffing (my brother).  To me it seems like a relief. And when it comes to holiday meals, our differences cut down the food fights.

Are you like your sibling(s)? Are your kids a lot alike or very different?   What do you think the reasons are?

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