High-achieving siblings

by MBT

Then don’t even mention Calculus…..

Here is the summary of a study on high-achieving siblings, and the commonalities in how they were raised. A lot of what these parents did seems contrary to the Amy Chua, or even Totebag parenting ideals. In particular, there seems to be a willingness to allow children to fail that we really don’t seem to have here. However, they mention drug and alcohol problems, teen pregnancies, and other stumbles on the path to adulthood. Many on this board would not consider those outcomes to be a success. The siblings profiled all did achieve success in their chosen fields, so there must be something more than chance going on. I’m not sure how that can be, though, because Calculus is not mentioned anywhere in the article. Do you see any similarities between your parenting styles and those profiled here? Do you consider these families to be successful?

Secrets of Super Siblings

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60 thoughts on “High-achieving siblings

  1. I can not find a work around to read the article without paying for it.

    I saw two friends last week that each have four kids. They both tried for a third, and ended up with a set of twins. The twins are in college, and they were discussing how successful the twins were with less parenting as compared to their older kids. Their stories were essentially that they had very little time and money for kids #3 and #4, so the twins were more independent. This included things as minor as not dropping off forgotten lunches to more major things such as kids selecting their own track in HS classes.

    They were essentially saying that they were not Amy Chua types because their parenting skills were different with kids #3 and #4. They were more relaxed about social things too such as curfews. It’s a little too early to fully compare since kids 3 & 4 are still in college, but they think that all four of their kids will be just as successful as #1 and #2 even though they poured more time, energy, money and thought into parenting #1 and #2.

  2. I cannot read the article, but in my family, we get less successful as you go down the line of kids (though I guess now that I don’t work I am the least successful). But everyone else is gainfully employed and we all have a graduate/professional degree. For me, it was extremely effective having a sibling who was very close to my age that I competed against. I don’t think that I would have done any better with fewer siblings/more parental support other than the fact that I probably would have had more choices when it came to undergrad, but even that probably wouldn’t have changed much other than in a sliding doors kind of way.

  3. I’m an only. Super unto myself.
    DH is #4 out of 5. There’s no correlation with birth order and success. 4/5 work full time; 4/5 married. 3/5 produced grandchildren. 4/5 own their own home. 4/5 have college degrees. None of them are slouches, but not all of them try their hardest or didn’t get the support needed to help them be their best.

    This was also the typical MC family – nurse/cop combination.

  4. Like Kate, when I was working, I was highest achieving by far, but not now. I didn’t feel much sibling rivalry coming up, figured my older sister and I were about equal. She and our parents saw it differently :). Little sister didn’t compete with either of us. These days I often feel ‘saac and her kids are put into competition with eachother :/. One of them is a Junior; she and ‘saac will both take the PSAT this fall. I’ve already gotten some shade because my idea of prep is to make sure my boy is on an even keel, rested, etc. while her daughter is doing hw for the prep course at their private school.

  5. Like Kate, I was highest achieving until I quit my job. DH is highest achieving by far in his family where one sister didn’t go to college. All others have post grad degrees but one is music performance and the other are vocational masters. His parents did not have college degrees so were unable to be Totebaggers. None if his siblings has been strategic about college application process and several of the kids have flamed out with single parenthood or the 7 year college plan that does not lead to a degree. Actually that was the same person.

  6. Penelope Trunk is terrible.

    The siblings profiled in the article – one of the characteristics was what I would classify as excessive fighting, including yelling and screaming. Maybe this means our kids will be successful! I think I’d rather they didn’t yell. The other thing that struck me was the young kids (ages 5-6) being responsible for babysitting their younger siblings – we could never get away with that these days.

  7. The article:
    This is a story about nine American families with children, like the Rodriguez kids, who all went on to extraordinary success in different fields. The Emanuel brothers conquered medicine, politics and Hollywood. The Wojcicki sisters became scientists, CEOs and tech entrepreneurs. The Simmons brothers are a painter, a rapper and a media mogul; the Antonoffs are now a rock star and a fashion designer. The Srinivasans include a judge, a public-health official and an entrepreneur, and the Gay siblings write books and run companies and design bridges. The Dungey sisters grew into an actor and a television executive. One Lin sibling designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the other has written 12 books.

    Each of these families is different in thousands of ways, from their ethnicities to their incomes to their sleepover policies. But we set out to find the ways they are the same.

    In selecting candidates to study, we ignored siblings who do the same work in the same industry (like Venus and Serena Williams) and families that come from a great fortune or legacy (like the Trumps or the Kennedys). We looked for families in which all the siblings did well. And we defined success by leadership, service or achievement, not just fame or money alone. Of course, genetics plays a role for every family, but we focused on upbringing and sibling dynamics instead.

    Some of the consistencies are fairly predictable. While none of these siblings grew up rich, they were privileged in many other ways. They had involved parents and lots of opportunities, and most saw college as achievable, even inevitable. They weren’t abused or neglected, and none grew up in abject want. They didn’t have an unfair head start, but they were spared some of the most difficult obstacles faced by less fortunate kids.

    But other commonalities are more specific, and more telling. Of the nine families, eight had a parent who was an immigrant or an educator, and five had a parent who was both. Many parents were involved in political activism of some kind. Most recall a conflict-heavy family life, but that conflict was rarely between the parents. Many had a strong awareness of mortality as children. And most said they grew up with much more freedom than their friends did.

    We talked to mayors and poets and judges and rappers, Jews from Chicago and Indians from Kansas and Haitians from Nebraska. We talked to siblings together and alone, and we talked to parents where we could. Here are six striking qualities they shared.

    First family:
    Every night for 20 years, Gino Rodriguez knelt beside his three daughters’ beds and whispered an incantation. As rats the size of footballs skittered along the floor of the basement apartment on the South Side of Chicago, he repeated the same five words into each girl’s ear as she slept: “I can and I will.” The message was always the same, and the audience was always asleep.

    “You talk to the subconscious. You don’t talk to the conscious,” Rodriguez says. “That’s the one that really listens.”

    The girls slept “hot-dog style,” cocooned in tightly wrapped sheets to keep out the vermin. They occasionally woke up during their father’s nightly pep talks, rolled their eyes and then went back to sleep. But each morning, they did a series of jumping jacks, looked in the mirror and said, “Today is going to be a great day. I can and I will.”

    Not all days were great—the family moved from the rat-infested apartment only after a woman was murdered in front of their home. But the three daughters of Puerto Rican parents were kept safe, spending most of their time in school or at the boxing gym where their father refereed. They learned how to block a punch and throw a right hook. They bickered over clothes and went to dance class and dressed up for quinceañeras.

    And one by one, they proved their father right: they could and they did. Ivelisse Rodriguez Simon graduated from Harvard Business School and is now a partner at a private-equity firm. Rebecca Rodriguez is the medical director of one of the best family-health clinics in the country. And Gina Rodriguez won a Best Actress Golden Globe for her starring role on Jane the Virgin.

    “We lived the idea of the American Dream,” Gina says. “And they made an environment where that was possible.”

  8. Research shows that the oldest is usually the most successful, and I am sure parenting has some role in that. My prediction in our family is that DS2 will be more successful in a traditional Totebaggy sense than DS1, and DD may be the most successful overall, or least successful. It depends on whether we can keep her on the straight and narrow in HS. I don’t see her succeeding in that academic Totebag way, but I could see her doing really well in business, in any area that involves directing other people, or in an area that requires keen observation.

  9. As Gino Rodriguez was boxing with his daughters in Chicago, Saroja Srinivasan, a Hindu who is vegetarian, was mastering the art of the hamburger. She and her husband T.P. Srinivasan settled in Lawrence, Kans., with their three small children in the early 1970s, when T.P. joined the math department at the University of Kansas. Everyone they knew was back in India.

    “We made a conscious decision that we are different enough, so we should do everything we can to make [the kids] feel part of their community,” Saroja recalls. That meant cooking hot dogs and pizza as well as dosas and pakoras, watching the Kansas Jayhawks in a living room adorned with Indian devotional art and arranging presents under the family shrine to celebrate “Krishmas,” their version of Christmas.

    Just like their neighbors, the three Srinivasan children—Sri, Srija and ­Srinija—played basketball and went shopping and rode dirt bikes. But they didn’t have chores in the same way their friends did. In the Srinivasan household, less was required—but more was expected.
    There was no one person responsible for the trash or dishes. “It was more like, ‘Look around. What’s Mom doing? Does she need help?’” recalls Srinija, the youngest. “Put things away. Pay attention.”

    Also, nobody got an allowance. Instead, a drawer in the living-room table contained petty cash for anyone to use. “On the one hand, it meant great permissiveness that is way better than an allowance,” says Srinija. “On the other hand, responsibility for every choice.” Her older sister Srija put it this way: “If I took $20, that meant Sri and Srinija couldn’t go to the movies.”

    The three kids, now adults, say they grew up understanding that the family was more important than the individual, a realization made especially poignant by the fact that their parents had left their own families behind to immigrate to the U.S.
    For the Srinivasans, that sacrifice paid off. Sri would grow up to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; his name was floated earlier this year as a candidate for the Supreme Court. Srija is the interim deputy chief for the San Mateo County health system, responsible for public-health efforts affecting more than 700,000 Californians. And Srinija is an entrepreneur who was one of the first employees at Yahoo and now sits on the board of Stanford University.

    In addition to Puerto Rico and India, the parents of these extraordinary siblings arrived from Israel, Haiti, Poland and China. For their children, the standards were unstated yet fundamental, as invisible and necessary as oxygen.

    The Gay siblings, a Haitian-American trio, grew up in Nebraska. Roxane Gay is a best-selling author and New York Times opinion writer, Joel Gay is one of the youngest black CEOs ever to helm a publicly traded company (Energy Recovery), and Michael Gay Jr. is a civil engineer. Their upbringing was stricter than their friends’: the kids weren’t allowed to have sleepovers, they couldn’t go to a friend’s home unless their mother Nicole had met the parents, and one bad grade could lead to the confiscation of beloved toys. None of that was up for discussion. “Parenting is not a democracy,” Nicole says.

  10. For the Srinivasans, having a parent who was an educator created an unspoken expectation of academic achievement that was almost as powerful as familial love. “You probably have somewhere in the back of your mind that you don’t want to disappoint your teachers in the same way you don’t want to disappoint your parents,” says Sri. “There was just no other way to think.”

    On most nights, the three Emanuel boys would adjourn their ritual fistfight and flop on their mother’s bed to hear a story. But sometimes she didn’t come home: Marsha Emanuel was occasionally arrested as she demonstrated against segregation in 1960s Chicago. On those nights, the boys bickered over the top bunk while Marsha waited behind bars.

    The Emanuels would go on to become the stuff of legend and are often called the Jewish Kennedys: bioethicist Zeke is a vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, a former Obama Administration official and one of the main architects of the Affordable Care Act; Rahm is the mayor of Chicago and a former chief of staff to President Obama; and Ari created William Morris Endeavor, one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood.

    Between their mother’s civil rights work, their pediatrician father’s campaign against lead paint and their grandfather’s union loyalties, the three rowdy youngsters couldn’t escape political awareness even if they tried. “If we did not go with her to a particular protest, that protest was brought home,” Rahm recalls, sitting in the briefing room of the Chicago mayor’s office. “Just eating dinner was a test of current events.” (The brothers also have a much younger, adopted sister, Shoshana.)

    That political engagement created a sense that the world was malleable and that the boys, through their actions, could be the ones to shape it. “You could, by protesting or coming up with ideas, actually change the world. I think that’s a very important message,” says Zeke. “It’s not that it will change necessarily, but the world can change, and that you have a responsibility to try to make a change.”

    Political activism was a common theme for the parents in these families. Many of them were outspoken in their demands for reform in cities, schools and housing complexes, and never just for the benefit of their own children. While none of the parents held high political office, their involvement ranged from demonstrating for civil rights to union organizing to demanding that cities build new parks or that universities treat low-wage workers fairly. When they weren’t pushing for reform, they were mediating heated political debates at home.

  11. Never heard of Trunk but everything in that link sounds right to me. These “consumption” graduate programs are such a scam.

  12. MBT thanks for posting the contents!!

    But for every one of those super families, there are many more that produced one superstar kid whose siblings were quite ordinary.

  13. I found the article interesting because I over the last month I have found myself in a position to be comparing adult “success” to that of my siblings. I was the most conventionally smart of the three, and the only NMS, but they are both much more creative than me, which is something that is not measurable on standardized tests. We were not competitive among each other growing up because we were different enough, and humorously, all three of us think we were my mom’s favorite kid. But in a matter of a few days this summer, both siblings had major achievements in their chosen fields that involve entertainment industry awards, and a major entertainment industry figure possibly making a movie of one of their projects. So I’m not necessarily the underachiever of the family, but I do feel pretty bland.I am definitely the most risk-averse, and simply could not have lived the life of financial insecurity they have lived. I had been thinking about what in our natures made each of them more willing to take those kind of risks than I am when this article came out. It doesn’t have the answers, but I thinking I’m pretty firmly in the nature, rather than nurture, camp.

  14. Both DH’s siblings and mine fall into the Totebaggy camp, so did our parents. Among the families of our siblings there are varying levels of Totebagginess which has impacted where people chose to settle down, the school choice for their kids etc. It will be interesting to see where our kids end up.

  15. My sister is even more Totebaggy than I am. We don’t compare ourselves too much, as we live very different lives. She and BIL have had much more stable careers than DH and I. Sometimes I envy their stability–our professional lives are filled with more risk and drama.

  16. MBT, thanks for posting!
    Scarlett, there was a brief phase of Penelope Trunk interest/bashing here a while ago, maybe while you were out sick.
    Rhett, is the prejudicial language really necessary? I don’t think so. Let’s just be nice to each other, OK?
    MM, your daughter is a dynamo!

  17. My mom was a college grad, my dad wasn’t. I’m an only, so no comparison point. Both of my partners’ parents had some high school; I think his dad may have graduated. They couldn’t really understand (other than a VietNam deferment) why he even had an interest in college.

    We both have college degrees. I have a masters and he started a masters program but didn’t finish it as a job at the time was of more interest. He is the younger child and more “successful” than his sister. But, she would never leave the small town they are from and that significantly limited her opportunities, though she has a very risk-adverse personality.

    Both of us have/had relatively stable careers. Neither of us are huge risk takers. Within a broad industry, I have had more flavors of jobs and moved between them much more fluidly as I learned my strength was problem solving vs a particular technical skill set. At times I could have taken jobs to be “more succesful”, but the tradeoffs were not something I wanted – lots of travel when I had young kids for example.

    My DDs have very different personalities though their school performance, so far, are about the same level. It will be interesting to see what they choose.

  18. All my sibs except one are fairly traditional Totebaggers. Married, lawyer, banker, county/city official. All kids went to four years schools right out of high school. The only one who has graduated has a full time career type job. The oldest never got married, but finished college, financially stable, decent guy, we hope that he will marry his current significant other. She has kids, so he could have grandchildren.

    All except the oldest have a business on the side. We aren’t totebaggers enough to depend solely on work for someone else.

    At this point in our lives, success seems to be revolve around stable families and the hope of kids moving back close to where the siblings live.

  19. MBT’s comment brought up a thought.
    An artistic streak runs in my mother’s family. It shows up now and again in family members. My mother’s cousin who was constantly in trouble and predicted to be a failure went on to become the head of an ad agency. Similarly random family members used their artistic skill in some form to make a decent living.

  20. Rhett – nope. My dad was very conservative financially, and our upbringing could be described as ridiculously stable. And by stable I mean dinner as a family virtually every night of my life, very routine habits with church and post-church restaurant meal the same time every week, at the same places, dinner the same time every night, things we did on weeknights vs weekends the same my whole life, etc. My dad is the son of immigrants, and his mother died when he was 6 and his father became a serious alcoholic. His upbringing was chaotic, and he provided us the complete opposite. I think that preference for stability and associated low stress rubbed off on me, where it enabled my siblings to just not ever worry about financial things. Finances, and particularly concerns around finances, were never discussed growing up. We knew we weren’t rich, but there was money for Catholic school and college, and my dad was able to retire comfortably at 58. I think I internalized it as a good way to do things, and my sibs internalized it as something that never needs to be worried about. In their chosen career paths, they have discovered that it is something to be worried about, but both survived the lean times (although one lost his house in the great recession) and lean times were not enough to push them to pursue “something with insurance” as my Mom would say.

  21. “I think that preference for stability and associated low stress rubbed off on me, where it enabled my siblings to just not ever worry about financial things.”

    That’s really prescient. This is where I flip-flop between nature and nuture. I grew up feeling poor and moving around and really seeking stability, and since I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I chose a path that would make me money while I was figuring that out. And I never did figure it out, so here I am 25 years later, knock on wood the most financially stable of the bunch. My brothers grew up with much more financial security, took longer to get through college, and generally followed less totebaggy paths (though the older has come around as of a few years ago). Is it because of different genetics (their mother is, umm, a flake) or birth order? Or is it because of the different environment they grew up in (their mother had no concept of discipline, took care of everything for them, and always wanted the country club lifestyle to which she was accustomed, whereas my mom was all about saving, affirmatively disapproved of that lifestyle, and was a practitioner of free-range parenting back when it was called being a bad mom)?

    IMO, this is like the discussion of height the other day. I don’t think you can fundamentally change who a kid is, except in a bad way (e.g., you can’t turn a free spirit into a corporate grind, but you can crush the life out of them with abuse and negligence). However, you can create an environment that can allow the kid to grow into her full potential, and set an example that makes an impression on a kid about what “success” really means. Unfortunately, the specifics vary for each kid — the perfect environment for one kid is too much freedom/too much restriction for another. And usually those very different kids end up in the same family, so you’re always adjusting for what works for each kid, which of course just sets up complaints of how [insert name here] always gets [insert desired freedom/object]. :-)

  22. ” a practitioner of free-range parenting back when it was called being a bad mom)?” :)
    Still is, and I still love it.

  23. That article didn’t even try to disentangle causation from correlation. To me it sounded like they found a bunch of families where traits of high iq, high energy, and drive all ran strongly, and then pointed to the often contradictory parenting styles (intensive parenting by the Rodriguez family vs laissez faire by others) as being the cause of the children’s adult success.

  24. Do you see any similarities between your parenting styles and those profiled here?

    Well, my kids do fight a lot.

  25. Gahhhhhhhhh, just got off the phone with a client whose former spouse is (1) in the hospital and (2) does not have a health care proxy. Get your estate planning done, everyone!! :)

  26. My sibs and I are all reasonably successful in very different fields, although not at a level where we would be the subject of such an article. (Lawyer, pilot, theatrical costumer — she started with parent volunteering and has gotten to the point where she’s being paid to costume regional theater, which I count as a great success considering how much of theater work is done for love not money!)

    We fought a lot as kids too.

  27. ” [insert desired freedom/object]”

    Interesting juxtaposition to the immediately previous post by SM.

  28. I couldn’t get past the paywall, but found the accompanying web page with the photos of the profiled sibs, and the first photo mentioned the background of the Wojcicki sisters.

    My initial reaction was that there are probably a lot of sibling kids of Stanford profs who have done very well in varied pursuits.

  29. I am the most totebaggy (stable) of my siblings + spouses. One sibling + spouse have their own company (online retail), and the other sibling works on assorted freelance jobs (underemployed by about half). The other in-law also works for the man (state govt), so that job is very secure.

  30. And DH is half stable and half not – he has stable quarterly income and then his hand in maybe 10 other pies.

  31. I like the fact that the two Dungey sisters each had their own subscription to TV Guide. I can imagine them fighting over the one copy in the house, until their parents just gave in and got one for each girl!

  32. I used to read all the articles n the front of the TV guide. There wasn’t much to them though–can’t imagine what you’d do with your own copy after that–unless you had a pet gerbil.

  33. This is from the Penelope Trunk article Rhett linked to. I entirely agree, although if my kid were so far behind, I don’t think that would be the case. Mine taught himself to read just like hers did, but several years younger. I wish schools worked more like this. My kid still tends to have a burning passion for one thing, and that thing only, for months at a time, and then it’s something else, but much of that tendency has been pressed out of him by being harnessed to the class pace at everything. If I had known then what I know now, I would have unschooled him.
    “that’s what the research says: That we don’t need to push kids because they push themselves when they are interested in something. There are no lazy people, only people pressured to do someone else’s idea of a good life.”

  34. Milo, you’ve asked me numerous times what I would say to a daughter who wanted to play football. I’m probably closer to that question right now than I’ll ever be, and I’m I bit surprised at myself. My nieces have done the whole soccer thing–their dad coached, my sister was league treasurer, the girls had strength and goalie trainers (one of them anyway) and the goalie girl did travel teams. Way beyond what I consider reasonable, but whatever. I just rolled my eyes and let them do their thing, tried to ignore when my sister micromanaged their dinner plates (she laid off the non-goalie when the pediatrician said what I’d been telling her since the girl was three–don’t force her to eat things, let her make choices). But now the younger one is in high school. There is a rugby team. One of her soccer buddies is playing and she wants to play too. My first response was “get her a helmet”, but my sister isn’t going to let her play because–and this makes me grind my teeth, it’s so bo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ogus (have you ever been a Car Talk fan?)–she wants the daughter to be a lady. Wtf is that? I know exactly what it is from the other side, as it’s what our mom said to me. I tried to remind my sister of how ridiculous it was that Mom didn’t want me playing softball because she seemed to think the other girls were lesbians or something. She remembered, but instead of finding it ridiculous, she said “yeah. The softball players and the volleyball players, they were not feminine [LfB, would your husband like to meet my sister? ;) ] but today it’s different. Strong is in for girls”. So I said, “oh, so [your daughter] would be right in there with rugby”. Logic has never been my sister’s strong point; she’s sticking by her “ladylike” rule. Makes me gag and makes me want to holler, throw up both my hands. Also makes me want to argue for a concussion-causing sport like I never thought I would. So there’s your answer: no, unless the other side’s argument is bad enough.

  35. @SM — sounds like your sister has the perfect plan to convince her kid to go as butch as she can in college. :-)

  36. @WCE — makes perfect sense to me. I remember my first test in Calc I Freshman year and thinking, wow, I just studied my ass off, and if I’m lucky I got 75-80 for a C, I really just can’t do this, here I thought I was smart. So I literally went directly from class to the registrar to take the class pass-fail (test happened to fall on the last day to make that choice). Turns out I was right: I got an 81. But I was also wrong: that 81 was a solid A, not a low B. When the prof found out she was pissed — she said she wished I had come to her, because she could have told me that I had what it took. It ended up being one of my favorite classes.

    I think it goes back to resilience — I was so used to everything coming easily because I was “smart,” and so when I ran into something that required actual work, I assumed there was something wrong with me and that I couldn’t do it. This is sort of how we treat a lot of girls in school, yes? We pat them on the head for being so well-behaved and taking such nice notes? We praise cooperation and teamwork and criticize displays of ego? And boy do girls learn to downplay their accomplishments so they don’t come across as stuck up or full of themselves. Keep your head down and stick with the pack. Not exactly a recipe for learning to test your limits and push harder and try and fail and get back up again.

  37. WCE, interesting article, but it seems to focus much more on science majors than engineering.

    From the article: “Of grads entering careers in STEM, only one quarter of them are women. However, interest at early ages is just about equal, with about two-thirds of fourth graders, male and female, stating an interest in science.:

    But my experience suggests that by HS graduation, a lot of males, but few females, aspire to be engineers. And a lot of the engineer wannabe guys I knew weren’t especially interested in science for the sake of science.

    But it does make me wonder about differences in viewing calc I. A lot of the male engineer wannabes I knew looked at calc I, along with calc II, physics, and most of the other engineering requirements, as hurdles to be cleared along the way to becoming engineers, which is quite a bit different than how the article describes females looking at calc I as something to be mastered.

  38. SM – that’s disappointing to hear. I hope your niece and sister reach an agreement. Women’s rugby at my college, although it is only a club-level sport, had some passionate players.

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