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Flesh, Blood, & Dollar Bills

Barbara Bensoussan

It’s hard enough when your close friend or next-door neighbor is wealthy and you’re struggling. But what happens when the person rolling in the dough is your sibling?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

According to Dr. Dalton Conley, Professor of Sociology at New York University, the differences in wealth among siblings are greater than differences in wealth when you compare most other social groups to each other. For every power sibling pair like President George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, you have many more pairs like Bill Clinton and his unsuccessful brother Roger. (President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy was also a general public embarrassment). After analyzing large sets of sibling data, Dr. Conley found that siblings from small families tend to resemble each other in terms of economic level. But families that are larger and poorer produce greater diversity. “Social class also influences how parents allocate funds to their children,” he explains. “Higher-income parents tend to use money in a compensatory way, they’ll give money to the child they perceive as being at a disadvantage. But lower-income families act in the opposite way; having limited resources, they’ll invest whatever they can spare in the child who looks like he’ll make something of himself.” Dr. Conley’s research was the basis for his book The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. He points out that while we like to think of families as giving equal treatment to all, it’s not always true, and siblings themselves often compete for success. “The family is no shelter from the cold winds of capitalism; rather it is part and parcel of that system, rat race and all,” he writes. “Inequality starts at home.” “People expect families to be equitable,” elaboratesDr.YisraelFeuerman, PsyD, a psychologist who specializes in the psychology of money. “But families are anything but fair; in fact, they’re a microcosm of society at large. You typically have one sibling who’s prettier, one sibling who’s a better learner, one who has a better head for business.”  In an optimal situation,Dr.Feuerman says, the family serves like a greenhouse, an enclosed environment that “metabolizes” these inequalities. During childhood, parents can do much to mitigate potential jealousies and insecurities by making sure that all the children feel equally loved. Some inequalities, however, may always stick in the craw — especially if they’re particularly large. “You often hear that the youngest or oldest ‘always’ gets preferred treatment,”Dr.Feuerman says. “Sometimes there’s one sibling who’s more demanding or needy, and the others keep hearing, ‘But he needs more.’ ”  Most parents tend to give financial help to children who need it most, which is easier for siblings to accept than apportioning more out of favoritism. “If parents give more to one child because they seem to prefer him, rather than because he needs more, the others feel slighted and less valued,” reports psychologistDr.YaelRespler.  “Money equals love in the minds of many people,”Dr.Feuerman agrees. “If a parent gives more money to one of the siblings, it’s perceived as though he loves that child more — although there are those occasional cases where the unloved child receives more money because his parents feel guilty.”  

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