My little brother is five years younger than me, and if there could be any pair of siblings that operated at opposite ends of the behavioral spectrum, it would be us. I can write a 15-page essay in my sleep, but I have no idea how to change a tire. He, on the other hand, doesn’t follow basic grammatical rules but taught himself how to juggle multiple items in a few hours.
We’re the physical manifestation of the book-smart v. street-smart divide, and we always have been. This difference has shown itself not only in our approach to education, but also in our parents’ approach to dealing with us. I rarely got into trouble as a kid, and when I did, it didn’t take much except for a look for my dad to redirect me. My brother? He could get grounded every week, and he would still do the same thing over and over again just to spite my parents.
Because of all of this, I’ve always been deemed the “good” one. Not that my parents would ever actually use that phrase. It’s always couched in describing our binaries: motivated/unmotivated, disciplined/impulsive, respectful/insubordinate, etc. The reality is that being the “good” one has its perks. I had almost complete freedom to do what I wanted and go where I wanted without much supervision. I got a car when I was 16, I chose and researched colleges by myself, and I moved across the country when I was 17 without much concern from my parents.
But my brother wasn’t even allowed to leave the house unsupervised until he entered high school and just started sneaking out anyway. My brother and I are still completely different. I’m heading off to graduate school, and he recently dropped out of high school. This is a huge issue in my family right now, but that’s neither here nor there. The good news is, despite all of this, I have a great relationship with my brother, and here are the rules I follow to achieve that:
1. Try not talk about your sibling’s “issues” to anyone except your sibling.
This is an easy one to mess up because, yes, sometimes your sibling does something so completely idiotic that you have to just vent. It’s OK to vent. Choose one person that isn’t a family member that you can vent to: your therapist, your partner, your best friend, your favorite coworker, whatever. It should be someone who doesn’t really know your sibling, because when you start venting to your family members, it becomes a huge issue. Sometimes it takes every cell in your body to keep your mouth shut about the fact that your sibling missed curfew for the 5th time this week, which meant that your mom stayed up bothering you until 3 in the morning. It’s hard not to whine to Aunt Susan about how your sibling crashed the car the night before, and that’s why you were all late to her son’s wedding. However, take a second to remember that night you had freshman year of college where you drank alcohol in way too many different forms and completely blacked out, and you walk down to the cafeteria in your pajamas and fuzzy moccasins because you just want some coffee, and a group of your friends were sitting at a table loudly recounting every single crazy thing you did the night before. Now imagine that it’s not a group of your friends, but your family members. Not so fun being the topic of conversation, right? Don’t make your sibling go through that. If you have an issue with them, talk to them about it, not your condescending, snarky cousin.
2. Unless you are their primary caretaker, realize that you are not responsible for their actions.
I think this is way tougher if you’re the older sibling, because from the time that they’re born, even if you can’t stand the way they cry and poop and vomit all over the place, you still feel this sense of ownership over them. It starts when they’re a baby, and suddenly they come home crying because the big kid up the street pushed them, so you decide it’s a good idea to go up to the park and throw a basketball at that kid’s face. That’s all great when you’re young—maybe not the violent basketball throwing—but it’s not so great when you’re adults. Part of the reason that you’re the “good” sibling is because somewhere along the line you figured out that you are in control of your own outcomes. You learned that you have to take responsibility for your own actions, good or bad. Or maybe you just figured out that channeling your anger or sadness into writing, or painting, or playing soccer is way more productive than smashing out someone’s car windows. Whatever the case, the best thing you can do as a sibling is give your brother or sister the opportunity to figure this out themselves. You’re doing them a disservice if you bail them out of jail every time they end up there, because they’re going to keep ending up there as long as they know you’re going to bail them out.
3. Accept that you sometimes need an emotional break from each other.
Basically, a sibling is that one friend that you’ve had since, like, sixth grade that actually drives you insane with the things they say and do, but you’ve been friends with them so long that it’s easier to just keep being friends than to stop answering their phone calls. However, there is a limit to how much we can emotionally take on at any moment, and it’s OK to prioritize your own emotional needs every once in a while. If it’s finals week and you have two papers due at midnight and you’ve developed a cold because you’re stressed and your immune system is shot, and your roommate is having a loud and dramatic argument with her boyfriend in the kitchen, and your sibling calls you because he’s sitting in the drunk tank after peeing on a cop car, it is perfectly OK to hang up the phone and deal with your own stuff. Unless it is an actual life-or-death emergency, it is totally within your rights to take a breath and take care of whatever issues you need to before adding your sibling’s issues to the mix. A lot of the time when you’re the “good” sibling, you’re expected to take on the emotional troubles of your sibling because they think you can handle it. Trust me, when you grow up, it gets way too hard to handle the emotional baggage of more than one person while still being able to function. If you need a break, take a break.
4. Understand that they are their own entirely original human being.
Some people are really great at figuring out really tough math problems, and some people have a knack for walking into a crowded room and commanding attention. People have different strengths and weaknesses, and that’s what makes us wonderful and dynamic and interesting. We can grow up in the exact same household and all turn out completely different. It’s fascinating. What this means though, is that there’s a misconception that we can compare ourselves to each other. We can’t. We have this habit of saying things such as, “Why can’t she just figure it out? I did.” That’s not how life works. That’s not how humans work. Everyone is on his or her individual path, and every path is different. You have to accept your sibling for who they are, not who they are compared to you. That’s how you get yourselves on equal footing and eliminate the good and the bad, even if the rest of your family doesn’t see it that way.