I was talking recently to a friend about inter-sibling relations in a large Duggar-like family. After listening, she said this:
It sounds almost like sister wives or something.
Wow. I had never thought of it that way before, but, yes.
I grew up in a family very like the Duggars, except that we had half a dozen fewer children. We older children were expected to help raise the younger children. My parents followed the same parenting manuals as the Duggars, and those manuals advised placing the older children in authority over the younger ones—requiring the younger children to obey their older siblings, and giving those older siblings the authority to use corporal punishment. As a result, I grew up spanking my younger siblings. In fact, the rule was that any individual sibling could spank any other sibling who was at least three children down the line from them.
And yes, this meant the seven-year-old could spank the toddler.
We didn’t have an official buddy system like the Duggars, but we did play favorites. There was one little girl who was my special baby, whom I took care of from when she was little, and in my eyes she could do no wrong. At one point my parents changed our room arrangements so that I and my close-in-age sister Heidi would each have several of the younger girls under our care, to wake and dress in the morning and put to bed at night. And you know what? Heidi and I fought tooth and nail over which of the girls we would claim. It wasn’t pretty.
When people look at big families like the Duggars or like my family—families with neat and tidy well-dressed smiling stair-stepped children—they probably don’t realize that things can go all Lord of the Flies in a heartbeat. I mean, think about it—you have a large number of children with an even larger number of individual sibling-sibling relationships, and then on top of that are placed systems of authority that weave through the siblings, combined with the vicissitudes of favorites. How could things not descend into ugliness from time to time?
I remember one time when one of the little girls was accused of cutting up a stuffed animal with a pair of scissors. Heidi and I circled the wagons and defended her with everything we had. We accused some of the little boys, arguing that the little sister in question couldn’t have done it. Our close-in-age brother immediately circled the wagons around the boys. Even as my parents were technically arbitrating, we children had formed factions almost instantly—and the tension between us was palpable.
When one of the little ones was special to one of us older ones, that child had a defender. That child’s punishments would be lighter, or at least contested. When one of the other older kids punished my special favorite, I would get angry. I did what I could to shield her, even as I meted out heavier punishments to the other children—sometimes to the chagrin of the older sibling who held them special.
I don’t mean to make it sound like it was all terrible—it wasn’t—or to dump on my siblings. There were lots of good times, too. We always had enough players for a board game, and our adventures outside together felt like something out of Swiss Family Robinson. We laughed together, we played together, we made up games and created fantasy worlds together. And as we’ve grown, we’ve managed to forge (mostly) harmonious relationships with each other. There are many things I absolutely love about being part of a big family.
But you have to understand that every oversized family where the older children are placed in positions of authority over the younger children will end up having similar dynamics. There will be favorites, and there will be feuds, and sometimes your heart will bleed as you watch your special favorite being punished by another sibling in a way you consider unfair. If I could go back and change just one thing about our sibling relationships, it would be to strip away those systems of authority.
And so, when my friend said “sister wives,” my mind went to books I’ve read by women who have left polygamist cults, and to the way they write about protecting their children from the other wives, and sometimes having to watch, helpless, while another wife punishes one of their children, often more severely than they feel warranted. And suddenly that hits home, hard.
Yes, it was a bit like sister wives.
Note: This analogy is not meant to minimize the depth of the trauma experienced by women in polygamous cults. The two situations are extremely different, as noted by commenter Angela. I make the comparison to point to the toxic dynamics that can be created by giving older siblings this level of authority over their younger siblings—dynamics that go unmentioned when families like the Duggars portray their “buddy system” as healthy and positive.