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Mom liked you best!

CHERYL TEVIS 04/05/2011 @ 2:35pm Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Five lines in my daughter's public address speech tug at my heartstrings. The selection, called Kurt Vonnegut's Commencement Address at MIT, mixes offbeat and genuine advice.

“Get to know your parents. You never know when they'll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings. They're your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.”

The advice hits close to home. I was 29 when my parents unexpectedly died within months of each other. But I didn't go through it alone. Three other people truly could say, “I know how you feel.” They were my siblings.

Growing up on a farm and sharing close quarters with two brothers and a sister in a small house, I recall many squabbles. Small wonder, looking at how different we are from one other. Were we really raised in the same house by the same parents?

I'm not the first to raise this question about their siblings. A 1980 study revealed that the personalities of siblings are similar only about 20% of the time. Why? Here are three theories.

1. Divergence. Children compete for parents' time, love, and attention. To minimize competition, they consciously or unconsciously find a unique niche.

2. Nonshared Environment. We don't ever grow up in exactly the same environment. We perceive it differently because we differ in age and because parents rarely treat us exactly the same.

3. Exaggeration. Families tend to exaggerate minor differences between siblings. Once a label is assigned, it influences choices made by the child (the clown, the bookworm, the socialite).

And then there's the influence of birth order. More firstborn children are members of Congress or in high-profile professions. Why? Firstborns get undivided parental attention. New parents often go overboard enrolling a firstborn in lessons and activities. The youngest child seldom displays as many photos at high school graduation as the oldest.

Parents also have higher expectations of a firstborn: good grades, strict rules.

Not all firstborns fit this mold. While birth order influences, it doesn't dictate.

From cradle to grave

Through the years, we grow apart from our siblings as we establish our families and careers. Many live across the country from each other. When grandchildren arrive, it becomes even more of a challenge to stay in touch.

As childhood squabbles recede, we recall when a sibling stuck up for us at school or took our side in an argument with our parents. A sibling bond is life's longest-lasting relationship.

Yet when author Jane Isay interviewed 100 men and women, she found that most wanted to improve their sibling ties, but they didn't know how. She suggests:

1. Consider childhood like Vegas — let what happened there stay there.

2. Don't only show up at family weddings and graduations.

3. Don't be a mole and don't tattle or gossip to Mom or another sibling.

4. Mind your manners; don't criticize.

5. Use technology (text, facebook, e-mail) to keep in touch.

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