Jeffrey Kluger's The Sibling Effect: The latest book in an emerging canon that fetishizes large broods.

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Sept. 21 2011 5:39 PM

Books By Men Who Like Big Families

Jeffrey Kluger's The Sibling Effect is part of an emerging canon that fetishizes large broods.

Siblings. Click image to expand.
The Sibling Effect and other books romanticize big families

When Jeffrey Kluger was in his 20s, out of his family nest and settling into a career as a journalist in New York City, his longtime girlfriend suggested that perhaps his extreme emotional expenditure on his three brothers—with whom he spent his free time hanging out or chatting on the phone—would be best devoted elsewhere. When Kluger mentioned her comment to his brother Bruce, he received a simple, damning reply: "Yoko."

Kluger, now an editor and science reporter at Time, admits—lionizes, really—an unusual closeness with his brethren. "The four of us, we came to know at a very deep level, were a unit—a loud, messy, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit," he writes in his new book The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us. (In place of a conventional author photo, Kluger chose an image of the "unit"—four towheaded brothers, arms entwined.) Given the extent to which Kluger interweaves his survey of sibling studies (on everything from birth order to gender to competition) with memoir it is tempting to take a Sharpie to the book's title, replacing Us withThem. I don't begrudge Kluger's close fraternal ties; his writing about his family is both frank and lyrical, and it's tough not to fall for his spunky tales of brotherly hijinks. But I couldn't escape the feeling that he was trying a bit too hard to pitch me something. When, at the book's end, he quotes a researcher who points out (darkly) that siblings cast a lifelong shadow, Kluger writes that this "shadow, like all shadows, is a thing created by light. And siblings—old or young, living nearby or far way—shine a very bright one."

Why the hard sell on siblinghood? Kluger is unabashed about the fact that his book's mission is to argue for what he calls the "sibling ideal." In his view, "as long as mom and dad are able to breed and support more young, they may as well keep having them." It's an unlikely stance for a science reporter who should know well the psychological, environmental, and financial costs of large families. And it places The Sibling Effect in an emerging canon of books, invariably written by men, arguing that women should have more children. These books tend to fall into one of three categories: 1. It's better for your kids, e.g. Kluger. 2. It's better for you, e.g. Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. 3. It's better for society, e.g. Philip Longman's The Empty Cradle.

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As a journalist who reports on such studies, Kluger has probably seen the research suggesting that parents with more kids tend to be less happy (though they score higher in lifelong satisfaction) than those with fewer children. Kluger also knows first-hand about the cost of such choices—his father was remote on the best of days, and Kluger surmises that his father's misery, and the subsequent unraveling of his parents' marriage, was a result of his father having been cast too young as a father to four kids. But still, Kluger's message is unwavering: To have thriving kids, it helps to have a "whole band of them."

In deference to this message, Kluger downplays and even ignores another ream of research (about which I wrote a cover story for his own magazine) on how happily children can develop without siblings. Even as he includes a quote from a leading researcher who says that singletons do just fine—and sometimes better—than people with siblings, he describes only children as "pampered, spoiled, hothoused things, too temperamentally fragile to survive in the wilds of the world," and so on. He cites data showing how only children thrive, but makes a claim that has been disproved in hundreds and hundreds of studies over the last century: "Singletons will learn selfishness when they should learn sharing, inflexibility when they should learn compromise, narcissism when they should learn generosity."

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