For some inexplicable reason we have been talking about Christmas games over recent weeks. I know that is completely unseasonal, but that is how it is. And we are all amused by the games we play at Mill Grove: traditions handed down to us by previous generations. They include Schools, O’Grady Says, Bomber Coming Over, Bigamy, and Where Art Thou, Brother? This last game requires two volunteers both of whom are blindfolded, and who then lie on the floor each holding a stick made of newspaper with which they attempt to strike the other person in turn. Like it or not, it is a very popular game and we never run out of volunteers. Often these volunteers are brothers or sisters.
Which leads me to the subject of this reflection: siblings. When planning the care of children, when conceiving of their rights, when describing their growth we tend to assume that they are primarily to be seen and related to as individuals. And this is both understandable and appropriate. But in the process we can unintentionally downplay or even neglect the significance of siblings in child development. One of the theorists who acknowledged this was Alfred Adler (1870-1937), and of course family therapy includes siblings by definition, but in general attention focuses on each individual child. As I was writing this piece I wondered, for example, how much has been written on Attachment Theory and siblings.
Several things have combined or conspired to bring this subject to the forefront of my mind. One is my experience of China where the “one-child” policy has revealed a number of unintended consequences not least the absence of aunties and uncles, and extended families as cultures around the world understand them. The universal observation that Chinese people of all ages (including young people) made to me was that young people lacked personal confidence and social skills. When I probed what this was about they told me that it was with brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles that these social skills and the accompanying confidence developed. I suppose it might help us understand their point if you could try and imagine a baby monkey or lion cub trying to develop their skills without the opportunity to play with siblings.
Then there have been a number of children coming back to Mill Grove as adults (often retired) who have told me that they have discovered previously unknown step-brothers and step-sisters in different parts of the world. (Social media play their part in these discoveries.) For whatever reasons these sibling groups had been split up, or kept separate, throughout the childhoods of the children concerned. And I wondered how it was that sibling relationships seemed to be a poor relation in the calculations that had been made for them.
Added to this has been the awareness at funerals I have attended of the closeness and importance of sibling bonds. These are occasions when people seem to talk about their sisters and brothers more deeply than at almost all other times. Perhaps because kin are ascribed rather than chosen, they may tend to be largely taken for granted… until that is there is separation and loss. When there has been separation from parents it is often siblings that become significant others in the life of a child, consciously or unconsciously.
Lastly I have been reminded again and again (including this very week) how often those who have lived together in a children’s home, residential school or foster family become as close as brothers and sisters. Sometimes they seem to become closer friends and confidants. Thirty years ago a young lad walked into the middle of a barbecue we were having on a beach in North Wales. We invited him to join us and from that moment on he became a member of the Mill Grove family. I am not sure we thought about this consciously but when he died aged just 48 we felt the grief and loss associated with a close and loved relative. (Although this column is usually anonymised I think it appropriate in this case to say that his name is Professor Sir David Mackay, formerly the Chief Government Adviser on Energy and Climate Change.)
With these factors in mind what are some of the significant issues that come alive when we focus on the siblings of those who spend part or all of their childhoods in some form of substitute care? One is the shared memories that they may have of their birth parents, birth family and home. Usually such memories are kept alive by constant reminders, jokes, associations and events with the nuclear family home. But without that setting they can easily become hazy or wildly unreliable. Sometimes they are ideas created out of wish-fulfilment, and the projections of fears and traumas. Siblings can combine memories to create a more rounded and nuanced understanding of their parents and families. If this does not sound important then it is worth pausing to consider the problems that arise when there is no reliable history on which to draw when a child is seeking to understand her life-story.
Then there is fact that sometimes the reason a child has been placed in a particular setting is so that he or she can be united or reunited with siblings. Despite what I said earlier in this piece, keeping a family together can sometimes take precedence over the particular needs or even wishes of an individual. I was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago. A little girl had loved living with her grandmother (in Southend on Sea) when she could not remain with her mother or father, but then she was moved to Mill Grove. The reason? There were probably two. Her grandmother was getting older and saw that the time was coming when she would not be able to cope adequately. The other was that so that girl could be with her two older brothers. However much she loved being with her granny, she longed to be with her brothers, and readily confessed that she imagined the grass to be greener over the other side.
The desire to be with her brothers helps to explain why she could not remember a single detail of her life with her grandmother. She had no one to help her do this when her grandmother died because she was living with her alone. But my intuition was that she found the breaking of the attachment to her grandmother so hard that she coped unconsciously by freezing her memories of this loved and dependable significant other.
On the other hand I have known those younger siblings who were not allowed to join older siblings at Mill Grove, and who have regretted this ever since. I recall walking around our home with one such person. She looked at the rooms and furnishings as if it were holy ground: the place where her three brothers had lived, and where she had longed to be together them. She had felt rejected in some way throughout life because of this decision (who by we do not know).
Blood siblings have the opportunity to share with each other personal and very intimate thoughts and questions without it being at all surprising or unnatural. It doesn’t always happen like this and sometimes as we know all too well things can go very badly wrong. But there is plenty of evidence that siblings have taken advantage of this. An older sister will often be very protective towards a younger sibling (a mother figure if you like). But even if there is not this closeness, there will still be conversations, often humorous, which siblings take for granted and on which they can rely, perhaps many years after the event.
Nephews and nieces play an important part in this sibling relationship in an inter-generational way. We have seen siblings struggle with their own relationships only to find themselves drawn closer together through their respective children. This is where family events like birthdays, Christmas, weddings and funerals have their place. This can be about the very identity of a person: to be called “Auntie” can be a defining moment in a person’s life.
I have been reminded again and again that when children suffer trauma and loss they can fear that the very same things will happen in their lives (family patterning). If a birth parent has rejected them and found it difficult to enter into a committed and fulfilled relationship with a husband or wife, they are anxious that they will repeat this all over again. It is important not to underestimate the power of this fear. Once again it may be siblings that provide a ray of hope. I have often heard someone describe a brother or sister with pride: “We don’t have to be like our mother or father” is the living message. So a sibling who “succeeds” in some way is not just someone to be admired but an embodiment of the hope of a better life rather than the “replication of sameness”.
Which leads me to reiterate the point about sibling-type relationships between those who are not actually related by blood or birth. And here I can speak with the insider knowledge and authority of one who experienced, and still experiences, this in and through Mill Grove. Sharing a childhood with others means that there is a reservoir of shared people, events, places and experiences from which we can endlessly and effortlessly draw. We find we are part of a caring network. When someone in the Mill Grove family dies there is often an unexpected outpouring of grief as we realise just how special that person has been, and what a good brother or sister they were to other siblings in this family that brought people together from many different blood families.
It is true that we should always be careful to consider the rights and needs of an individual child paramount when decisions are made about their lives. But this should never be without due attention not only to birth siblings, but also to the potential of the group. Siblings are a vital element of the village that it takes to raise a child.