News that Prince Harry has pipped the Duke of Cambridge in public duties this year (completing 86 royal engagements, versus Prince William’s 80) will come as small surprise to any mother of competitive brothers.
My own boys Zevi, six, and eight-year-old Rafael engage in maddening one-upmanship at any opportunity, turning every interaction into a contest – at bedtime, they race one another up the stairs, the victor hollering out with glee; the same goes for any time I ask them to put on their coats, get into the bath, or answer a simple maths sum.
I often wonder whether similar scraps peppered the childhoods of the Wright brothers or the Bee Gees. They certainly did the tennis-mad Murrays, but though matriarch Judy has long bemoaned the lifetime of sibling rivalry between sons Andy and Jamie, she believes it can also be a force for good – and made her youngest the world number one he is today.
“[Andy] wanted to do everything Jamie could do and Jamie was always better than him,” she says, recalling that when the then nine- and 10-year-olds took it in turns to play the same opponent in a tournament, Andy claimed Jamie’s win for his own “because I tired him out [first]”.
Jamie – who ends the year as one half of the best doubles pairing in world tennis, himself – has admitted that when his little brother’s success overtook his own, it only motivated him to work harder.
Sport is often where sibling rivalry looms largest: a 2010 study, which analysed the behaviour of 350 pairs of baseball-playing brothers, showed that being pitted against one another gives the younger sibling, in particular, a more competitive outlook. “[They] get used to standing up to someone who is bigger than them, better than them at almost everything,” says Po Bronson, author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.
Like many boys, both of mine are obsessed with the beautiful game and want to be footballers when they were older. So when Zevi was selected by a football scout to join the training academy of a Premier League football club, I shuddered with fear, not pride. The only thing I could think was “how will Rafael take it?” The coach merely shrugged when I asked his advice on how to break the news to my eldest. “He’ll just have to learn his younger brother is better than him,” he said. “That’s life.”
It was a throw away remark yet, for me, it was a pivotal moment. He was right. That is life. As adults, we are surrounded constantly by people that seem better than us. At work, I have spent the best part of 20 years as a journalist and news presenter, competing with colleagues for stories, interviews, even jobs. I’ve always pushed myself forward, not waiting for opportunities to be handed to me on a plate.
I suppose, then, it’s easy to see where my boys get their desire to surge ahead of those around them. When Zevi managed to ride a bike before Rafael, it drove his older brother to apoplexy, ensuring that he too mastered the skill within days, grimly determined not to be trounced by his little brother.
Instead of worrying about the boys’ rivalry, perhaps my husband Phill and I should be encouraging, or even harnessing it, to fuel their later-life success?
Professor Alison Pike, developmental psychologist at the University of Sussex, claims competition between siblings is naturally occurring and healthy, provided a robust balance of warmth and positivity is maintained, alongside.
“It can spur children on to do their best,” says Professor Pike. “Competing within the family is a safe way to learn about winning and losing and can develop a child’s resilience and be the motivation that feeds their natural talent.”
A recent study of teenage siblings by the University of Missouri, however, suggested that competition between siblings could lead to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, while another found that residual feelings of rivalry lasted well into adulthood for 45 percent of people.
Prof. Pike’s advice for parents is to intervene if one child is becoming distressed by the competition, but otherwise, set up firm household rules, such as knocking before entering a sibling’s room, to protect each child’s privacy and interests, rather than stepping into every argument.
You only need to look at the Miliband brothers to see where it could all go wrong. After losing the bitter battle for Labour leadership in 2010, David moved 3000 miles away to New York and reportedly rarely has contact with Ed, the younger brother who was once his best friend, and best man at his wedding.
That’s the last thing I would ever want happening to my boys, so Prof. Pike has one last piece of advice. “Celebrate and solidify their uniqueness,” she says. “If you treat your children as individuals so they know they have different strengths and can differentiate themselves from their siblings – and others – then you’re giving them tools for life.”