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September 2011

Boy, Oh Boy!

Raising a Band of Brothers

By Karen Finucan Clarkson

Ask parents of all-boy families to describe their households and certain adjectives seem to enter the conversation with great frequency: active, chaotic, energetic, loud and messy. Throw a girl or two into the family mix and the descriptions take on a different tone.

While little conclusive research exists on the pluses and minuses of boys growing up with only brothers, many scholars believe that sibling gender influences family dynamics—they just don’t know to what extent.

“A generation of researchers tried to establish that sibling sex and birth order had significant impacts on children’s personality and development without much success,” says Susan McHale, professor of human development and director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State.

Part of the reason lies in all the variables inherent in families that cannot be controlled, such as socioeconomic status, parents’ marital status, the identity of the primary caregiver and the age difference between siblings. And though gender has some predictive qualities, it’s unclear exactly what it measures.

Qualities Present and Absent

That said, there do seem to be certain attributes present in families with all boys, while other qualities may be missing. “I think there’s often an assumption that if you have all boys, you need to have a girl,” says Lori Snyder, a Silver Spring mom whose four sons range in age from 4 to 7. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re not lacking anything.”

At least not anything for which all-boy families can’t compensate, says Melanie Killen, a developmental psychologist and professor in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. There are ways to make up for what Killen says is often more of a perceived than actual lack of a softer, more gentle perspective among siblings.

What’s Missing?

So without a sister in the family constellation, what—if anything—are brothers missing out on? Increased protection from depression during adolescence, according to a 2010 study by researchers at Brigham Young University, and a better ability to handle stress and cope with life’s ups and downs, says a 2009 report out of Britain’s De Montfort University and the University of Ulster.

“These findings are no fluke,” writes Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, in The New York Times. The bottom line is that sisters tend to engage their siblings in conversation. “The key to why having sisters makes people happier … may lie not in the kind of talk they exchange but in the fact of talk.”

“What [the studies] tell me is that it is the quality of interactions, not whether there’s a boy or girl initiating them, that matters,” says Killen. “When siblings talk to each other, that’s an important factor in guarding against depression.”
Despite their many differences, Leslie Shedlin’s sons, now 25 and 21, are confidants. “They became closer at an earlier age than me and my sister,” says the Bethesda mom. “My boys are the kind who, while they would talk to their parents, would go to each other first.” That’s not to say the boys didn’t have their share of angst growing up, she adds, but their relationship was a stabilizing factor.

Relationship With Mom

Having a sister seems to help boys in their relationships with their mothers, says McHale. “In boy-boy pairs, mothers spend less time with their children. …To the extent girls demand time and warmth, they set a standard and sons benefit.”

Providing one-on-one quality time has been a priority for Eileen Piper, of Arlington, who has twin 6-year-old boys. “I nursed my boys until they were 2 ½ for a variety of reasons, one of which was to have quiet, close physical time with each one,” she says. Four years later, her nursing glider has been transformed into a “love chair,” where the boys go when they need a little loving.

Having a sister may also help boys with intimate relationships.

“A student McHale’s looked at romantic competencies and relationships in adolescence, including outcomes as a function of sibling gender. The result showed that boys with only brothers rated themselves highly in terms of romantic competency. But, among teens actually involved in a relationship, those from mixed-sex dyads were viewed by their partners as being the best at intimacy than other pairs.

Substitute Sisters

“There’s nothing that precludes us from having other people in our lives who can fill the role [of sister],” says Pat Schwallie-Giddis, chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Organizational Studies at George Washington University. “As a parent you can provide those opportunities.”

And many do. “I love when my older son plays with girls,” says Anh Ly Jordan, a Bethesda mother of two boys ages 5 and 2. “His two favorite girl friends are both the princess type. But he’ll get them to the Lego table where he’ll do ships and they’ll do castles. …It might be nice to have that balance at home, but it’s certainly not necessary.”

Nancy Golding’s sons, now 21 and 18, spent time over the years with families from their temple. “There were a lot of girls in that group, so they grew up in close proximity to females,” says the D.C. mom. “While it is slightly different than growing up with a girl in the house, it does introduce them to things we consider more feminine.”

“My boys have always had close friends who are girls,” agrees Elise Browne Hughes, a Bethesda mom of a teen and a tween. “I feel happy about that. It means they don’t think of girls in a certain, negative way. If they didn’t have those friendships, they’d be missing something.”

Less Drama, More Ease

While having only brothers does not—at least from a research perspective—seem to give a boy any advantages, many parents of boys would take issue. Noise, chaos, energy and messiness aside, there’s a certain ease associated with all-boy families.

“I do think, stereotypical as it sounds, boys have a little less drama every step of way,” says Golding. “That’s not to say there isn’t any drama but, certainly, less histrionics. It also doesn’t mean my boys don’t fight; they do. I just remember having more drama with my sister.”

Although she initially wanted girls, Denise Aranoff-Brown, quickly saw the ease of raising boys. “A boy and girl can be close in some ways, but they’re not able to speak in the same code and share things in the same way,” says the Gaithersburg mother of two boys, ages 8 and 11. “There’s a consistency with boys that I’ve come to appreciate.”

Snyder, who also wanted a daughter, has grown accustomed to raising siblings who are more competitive and physical than the all-girl household in which she grew up. “After my first one, I wanted a girl,” says the mother of four. “After my second, I really wanted a girl. After my third I thought, ‘Wow, having a girl would really mess things up around here.’”


Karen Finucan Clarkson, a Bethesda mother of three boys (ages 12-20), grew up in New York with three sisters and a brother.