Abolishing (the word) “Siblings”

Picture a blank index card in my left hand and a red felt marker in my right. I’m writing a word on the card: 
Sibling. We’ll do something with this card at the end of the post, but for now, let it sit in your imagination near the bottom of your screen.

A line from Diana Kimpton’s book, A Special Child in the Family: Living with your sick or disabled child, jumped out at me last week. It got me to thinking hard about brothers and sisters. Listen to this:

Next to yourselves, the people who will most be affected by your child’s special needs are his brothers and sisters or, as professional jargon calls them, his siblings.” (loc 1306)
Really, siblings??? Just because a child has disabilities, now the relationship with his brothers and sisters is reduced to “siblings?” Where outside the world of disabilities are brothers and sisters demoted to this unnatural role? Of all places, where kids in a family already have multiple strikes against them because of special needs, shouldn’t we be encouraging thriving relationships? Professionals, are you listening?

To be fair, “siblings” probably started out as shorthand for “brothers and/or sisters” in much the same way that “parents” means “mother and/or father.” It’s quick to say and doesn’t require an explanation.

But it also reduces unique and potentially vital relationships into detached roles.

I thought back to all the times my grandparents took us through cemeteries looking for undiscovered relatives. Over and over, we read headstones bearing the sentiment of “loving mother, daughter, sister…” or “loving father, son, brother…” But I don’t recall ever seeing the word “sibling” used to describe the honored person. Not once.

Why? Because we value relationships. These may be warm and loving and vibrant, fiery and filled with discord, or a combination of these, but relationships are never neutral. Relationship means that someone matters to us, even if to make us angry or jealous.

What do you think of when you hear the word “brother?”

·         Wrestling partner

·         Secret spy or pirate (sometimes working together, sometimes enemies)

·         Teacher of whistling and spitting

·         Tickler-until-you-beg-for-mercy (for younger brothers, substitute digger-of-chin-into-shoulder)

·         Helper with chores involving ladders or tractors

·         Above all, relationship.

When you hear the word “sister,” what comes to mind? I don’t have a sister myself, so these images, based the relationships of sisters I know, are what I picture:

·         Clothes and nail polish stealer

·         Eavesdropper and diary reader

·         Midnight confidante

·         Recipe swapper

·         Lifelong friend

·         Again, relationship.

Contrast these rich, evocative words of “brother” and “sister” with the word “sibling.” What comes to your mind when you hear the term “sibling?”

·         “Sibling rivalry”

·         Lifetime responsibility, caretaking, and guardianship

·         Guilt

·         Disconnect

·         A role.

Where is the relationship in that?

When we reduce brothers and sisters to the dissociated role of “sibling,” we impose that same isolation onto our child with disabilities. Brothers and sisters have relationships with their brothers and sisters; siblings carry out a role with another sibling. There is no connection. The potential for emotional damage here is very real.

When my daughters were small, they epitomized the “sister” relationship. Disability wasn’t part of their frame of reference. They swatted foam at each other in the tub, tackled each other on the floor (or, more accurately, one toppled over on top of the other), curled together on the couch to read picture books. They got the giggles at bedtime and bit each other when they were angry. They had their little arguments in the back seat of the van…”Mommy, make her stop looking at me!” They saw beauty in one another (“Why wouldn’t someone marry her? She’s such a nice person”). 
Now they are teenagers dealing with teen attitudes. The sister relationship my daughters once shared has digressed into more of a sibling “role.” Disconnect sits in the room like the proverbial elephant no one wants to bring to attention. That elephant causes them each tears and stress when no one is looking. I confess it brings me to tears as well.

I don’t want my girls to be “siblings” anymore. I want them to be sisters. I’m not sure how to make that happen, but abolishing the word “sibling” seems like a logical place to start. If anyone asks if my daughter with Rett syndrome has a “sibling,” I’ll tell them that she has a SISTER. I need to grab tightly to that word and encourage both my girls to embrace it as well.

Remember the index card with the word “sibling” printed on it? Let’s walk over to the shredder now, and drop the card into the slot. You can hear the motor and rollers and blades activating, right? The “sibling” card is now a bazillion little bits and I choose to not include it in my vocabulary anymore. How about you?



Clara-Leigh said...

Powerful thought process as I see my kiddos dealing with the preteen stuff and a special needs brother. I will keep your words in my mommy heart!! THANK YOU!

Rose-Marie said...

Clara-Leigh, the dynamics get interesting with kids getting older, don't they? I hope your girls can model for each other how to maintain that sister relationship with Garrett during those tough times when one of them would probably prefer to sell him for cheap (assuming, of course, that they might ever feel that way. Not like that ever happens, right?). Having a typical sister as an encouragement may turn out to be a blessing in their relationships with him, too. I hope all goes smoothly at your house as you head into this new season in your family!

Carly said...

The reason you don't see the word "sibling" on a headstone is because "brother" or "sister" is more specific to the person, so of course that's going to be the word they use. In an article or a document, the author probably uses sibling when 1) they're not talking about a specific person, 2) they're not talking about personal relationships, or 3) they're talking about more than one sibling (who might have different genders). Doubtful that they're actually trying to imply all of the things you claim the word implies.

If they were really trying to create a disconnect, they'd probably say "other children in the family" or something like that :P

A said...

I take your point, Rose-Marie; though neutral in some contexts, it can be employed as a distancing terminology that reminds me of early medical reports when my daughter was a baby, and apparently I was to make plans not for raising my child, but for her "management".

A said...


He ain't heavy, he's my... sibling?

Rose-Marie said...

Carly, thanks for your input. I think what prompted me to think about this misuse of the word "sibling" was my experiences teaching. Never did I hear the term "sibling" in relation to children in general education but it had basically replaced the phrase "brothers and sisters" for students with disabilities. This has haunted me for years and I wished it would disappear...yet the disconnect remains. There is already an abundance of disconnect; we need to work as professionals to narrow the void, not emphasize or increase it.

Rose-Marie said...

A, I appreciate you bringing up the larger problem of sterile vocabulary--and the sterile thinking behind it--beyond just "sibling." It is offensive that you would be asked how you planned to "manage" your daughter's life. Our children are a gift and it is our joy to nurture them. I am so thankful you were able to rise above those ghastly medical reports...

Cheryl said...

I think you're way overthinking this. I hear 'siblings' used all the time, for both 'typical' and 'special' kids. I don't see any distancing with the term. I'd like to point out something though, your up in arms about the term 'sibling' being used to (supposedly) distance a relationship, but your site has an ad "I (heart) a tubie"... this is horribly distancing to me, this identifies a child, not as a child, but as his or her disability. I'd sure rather hear, "This is my sibling." than, "This is my 'tubie'."

Rose-Marie said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Cheryl. I'm not sure I heard "siblings" nearly as often (if ever?) in the world of the school PTA as I do in the world of special needs, but maybe my experience was unique.

You bring up a really good point about the "I (heart) a tubie" badge. My point in putting it in the sidebar was to help parents of tube-fed kids find a resource for support. My apologies to anyone who might find this offensive; I can see where identifying the child by his or her disability is indeed distancing.

Lucy Kemnitzer said...

I guess this is an old post but is this a regiuonal issue? Because here in central coast california we use the word sibling all the time in every kind of family and it doesn't have the kind of implication you describe here.