Bookmarks Issue: 

Which Siblings Succeed and Why

A-PeckingOrderYou may feel jilted because you were the middle child, but more likely your family’s available resources (squandered on your older sibling’s Ivy League education?) determined your lot in life. Conley, a sociologist at New York University, views a family’s resources (money, love, attention, encouragement) as a "fixed pie"—if one child gets a bigger piece, others get smaller ones. "Everyone in a family experiences that family differently," he writes. Debunking claims that gender and birth order alone determine siblings’ relative success, he argues that familial expectations, the cost of advanced education, divorce, death, and pure luck affect the pecking order. The clincher: society’s vast inequalities "start at home."
Pantheon. 309 pages. $24.

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"[Conley] has produced a profound, controversial and blessedly easy-to-read book that ought to be required reading for armchair experts about families—their own families, and others about whom they gossip." Steve Weinberg

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Though at times he comes up a bit short in his avowed desire to avoid writing sociologese, on the whole the book is lucid and provocative." Jonathan Yardley

Providence Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Gathering and synthesizing data and statistics from many sources, Conley uses a modified case-study method to illustrate his thesis. The result is an interesting and eminently readable combination of overall trends and individual family histories…" Don Gregory

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"From the first page, this book is engaging because you cannot help but think of your own family predicament." Ginny Merdes

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"That America contains an often-unforgiving economic caste system and that families devise their own dynamics, is hardly ‘revelatory’. … Although these interviews [with siblings and parents] can resemble the Smothers Brothers’ routine of ‘Mom loved you best!,’ the anecdotes keep the book from sinking into an academic malaise." Stephen J. Lyons

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Anyone who reads this book will learn things he or she did not know, but few will be able to stitch together a powerful and memorable lesson from it. … I do not mean to be condescending in saying that, as Conley matures, he is likely to have a more nuanced view of the pecking order and will be in an excellent position to write a more authoritative book." Howard Gardner

Critical Summary

Conley offers the stark example of Bill Clinton and his half-brother, a convicted felon, to illustrate that more inequalities can divide siblings than different families. Drawing on existing research and 175 interviews, Conley complicates simplistic theories. His fascinating "soap opera" case studies will capture your attention, but his academic writing will deter you. So will his narrow definition of success, which rests primarily on education and income. As the Boston Globe asks, don’t "human and humane qualities," such as civic involvement, also define success? Despite its flaws, Pecking Order will make you rethink your own family. And, perhaps, your own special little role in it.

Supplementary Reading

A-BornRebel.epsBorn to RebeL Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives | Frank J. Sulloway (1996): Sulloway argues that firstborns have conformist mindsets, while later children are more creative and free-thinking. "Yet despite both particular and general limitations, this book represents a stunning achievement. Good ideas are not good because they are ‘right’; they are good because they force us to think, to re-examine and perhaps revise current conceptions." New York Times Book Review

A-NurtureAssumption.epsThe Nurture Assumption Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do | Judith Rich Harris (1998): "This is Harris’s argument in a nutshell: that whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us.... The Nurture Assumption ... is a graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive assault on virtually every tenet of child development." New Yorker