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I read somewhere that having siblings is good for children because it forces them to compete for family resources — thereby building character.

Sounds rational, but harsh. Darwinian even.

As parents, we try to convince ourselves that we are capable of providing equal (and infinite) portions of love and resources for all of our offspring.

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Mark Kennedy

Deep down, though, we know better. Our checking accounts only stretch so far, and one-on-one attention (which is often a proxy for love) must too be sliced like a pie.

I've watched our two sons, ages 12 and 17, for signs of sibling rivalry. Thankfully, there doesn't seem to be much. I think the five years of separation helps. Our older son's social and academic shadow doesn't quite extend far enough to envelop his little brother, even though they attend the same middle-high school.

Oh, occasionally our younger son will raise the "fairness" issue.

He'll pout: "Why does HE (older brother) get new soccer cleats, and I don't?"

Usually there's a logical answer.

Like: "Because you got new cleats two months ago, and he didn't. That's why."

It's almost as if siblings must occasionally raise the "fairness" cause just to keep us parents honest. Our older son rarely cries foul, although he will occasionally plant a marker, too.

Last week, when asked to pick up his little brother from an appointment, our 17-year-old pointed out that this would mean sacrificing the possibility of a full day of plans for himself — although he couldn't really think of any plans he might want to make.

By feigning sacrifice, he was creating a bargaining chip to use later. Smart.

Which brings up another truth: Having siblings hones a kid's negotiating skills. As adults, we negotiate inside relationships, jobs and more, so having brothers and sisters is good practice.

While watching the boys for conflict, it has opened a window to how they learn and grow from one another.

For example, our younger son clearly emulates his older brother.

When the 17-year-old puts stickers on his bedroom door, the 12-year-old follows suit. When our older son gets a car, the younger boy places his order not just for a car, but for a specific car — a VW GTI — in five years.

I compare this effect to drafting in auto racing. The first child is out front, slicing through the headwinds of life, while younger siblings tuck in behind him or her.

What does the oldest child get out of the bargain?

Well, if the maturity gap is wide enough, a first child actually gets a taste of parenting.

I notice that our older son seems to know that his time at home with his brother is short. He is less likely to pick or prolong fights and more likely to suggest brotherly activities. The other day they went sneaker-shopping together — all afternoon.

The competitive juices, no longer on rapid boil, have simmered down, too.

It's almost as if they can both hear a clock ticking in the background — 18 months and counting until our older son goes to college.

Childhood together is almost over. A mature relationship is beginning to form.

There is a bitter sweetness to this moment in the life of our family that causes a lump in my throat.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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