Symbolic Sibling Rivalry
in a Guatemalan Indian Village
By Benjamin D. Paul, Stanford University
For convenience the last three children in a family may be regarded as occupying a series of statuses as follows: nursing baby, knee child, and yard child.9 Pedranos treat nursing babies with warmth and affection. Infants are given the breast whenever they cry. If the mother is momentarily busy at the loom or at the grinding stone, an older sister or another woman of the household mollifies the infant by picking it up. Women who leave the house for long periods necessarily take along their nursing infants. The mother uses her shawl as a sling in which the infant is completely enveloped and held close to the breast. When time allows, mothers sit in the hammock rocking. their babies in their arms. Fathers fondle their infants in the evening, and laugh at their antics. Older sisters take good care of babies entrusted to their care and share their parents' pride over the accomplishments of the growing infant. Babies are given bits of solid food by the age of one but they usually continue nursing until they are fifteen or twenty months old. Infants are weaned when the mother is pregnant with another child. Mother's milk is thought to be injurious to the nursing child when the woman is in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. To effect weaning, mothers often smear chicken feces or ground chili on their nipples. Babies of crawling age are carried about in a shawl rather than left for long periods on the floor where they may upset pots or get into the fire. First steps are applauded and encouraged, but children are not prodded into early walking. Little effort is made to teach them bowel or bladder control until they are old enough to walk and to understand instructions.
"La Vida es Dura," life is hard. Painting by Chema Cox, 2007.
Though there is no institutionalized favoritism in San Pedro, the natives recognize the effect of differential infancy care on personality formation. The final child in a family is designated by a special native term (ch'ip) which applies even when the individual has grown to adulthood. According to native accounts, terminal children are assertive, demanding and quick to anger throughout their lives. Field observations support this view. A conspicuous difference in the experience of last born children, and one recognized as influential by Pedranos, is the fact that they are allowed to nurse until the age of three or four years in the absence of succeeding siblings.
Final children excepted, transition from the status of nursing baby to that of knee child brings a reversal of treatment. The knee child is not neglected but it can no longer be indulged in the degree to which it has grown accustomed. Endlessly busy preparing tortillas, carrying water from the lake, tending the breast baby, and performing other household routines, mothers have little time left for older children. The knee child reacts to loss of the breast and curtailment of maternal attention with fits of petulance, temper tantrums, occasional trance-like withdrawals, and swift changes of mood. These demonstrations are half ignored and half humored by the mother, who is less tolerant of emotional outbursts on the part of the older yard child. San Pedro women explain that children become especially irritable and make more food demands during the several months before and after the birth of the next child.10
The knee child is actively and effectively prevented from carrying out aggressive impulses against the new baby. This is accomplished by removal and direct punishment if necessary but more characteristically by deliberately fostering in the knee child a positive identification with the new sibling. When visitors come to see the newly born child, the mother and elders of the household will announce in the presence of the knee child that the latter loves his little sibling and doesn't want anybody to take it away. The knee child acts out its aggression against the self (temper tantrums), against an older-sibling (who does not retaliate on pain of punishment by the parents), or against the parent. The extract from field notes that follows indicates how the dispossessed child directs its anger at the mother. In this excerpt, Nicolasa is one of several women watching a religious procession; Petrona (knee child) is a three year old daughter and Bartolo a year old infant.
Petrona is crying loudly, her face buried in mother's lap. This interferes slightly with Bartolo who is nursing. Nicolasa is watching the procession and talking with the other women, but every once in a while shows a sign of affection for Bartolo. She seems to be paying absolutely no attention to Petrona but she finally looks irritated, probably because of Petrona. I ask why she is crying. Nicolasa answers, "She hit Bartolo on the head." "Then why is she the one who is crying?" Nicolasa doesn't know why. After crying for about ten minutes Petrona stands up and starts slapping her mother with both hands in jerky and random fashion. Nicolasa wards off blows with one arm but doesn't do anything else. Finally as Petrona continues crying, Nicolasa orders her in an irritated voice, "Go, go home."
Another example of sibling behavior involves two sisters who were observed almost daily for nearly one year. Six year old Concepcion and Magdalena, age two and a half, were the only children of the family until a third girl was born. During the five months preceding. the birth of this baby, Magdalena was observed to exhibit tantrums with increasing frequency. She was very "temperamental," one day boisterously joyous, the next day sullen and burst- ing suddenly into tears. This was attributed by women informants to the fact that her mother was pregnant, though children are supposedly ignorant of all matters pertaining to sex and reproduction. For the most part Magdalena's outbursts were ignored. She was not immediately placated nor was she strongly reproved. If she persisted long enough her mother would appease her with fruit or confections.
The yard child, Concepcion, was also disturbed by the impending birth but for a briefer period. Generally genial and even-tempered, Concepcion spent much of her time mothering Magdalena. She was generally undisturbed by Magdalena's occasional assaults upon her.. Concepcion frequently asked the writer for fruit or sweets. These requests were always made in the name of Magdalena who did in fact receive most of the food granted. Concepcion's requests became increasingly insistent and annoying, reaching a peak during and shortly after the time her baby sister was born. Thereafter her attitude of aggressive demanding reverted to one of pleasant friendliness.
Verbal aggression is exceptional on the part of the yard child, who learns obedience and industry by parental injunction and by whipping when necessary. Characteristically the yard child at the age of five years and upward runs errands and performs useful tasks for its parents, protects and instructs the knee child and treats the nursing baby with the same devotion exhibited by the parents. The strength of the super-ego component at this stage is indicated by the response encountered when the observers introduced a doll into a children's play group. No parents were present. Assuming the doll to represent a nursing infant, children between the ages of five and adolescence uniformly displayed an admiring and solicitous attitude. The first reaction was to hold the doll tenderly and kiss it on the cheek. This gesture follows the conventional behavior of married women paying their first respects to a mother and her new baby. The second gesture on the part of yard children was to hand the doll to a younger sibling so that the latter might similarly kiss it.11
"Niñas jalando a su hermanito," girls pulling their little brother. Painting by Chema Cox, 2007.
To recapitulate the early socialization sequence in San Pedro, the nursing infant receives much care and affection and suffers little deprivation; actually dependent, it experiences so nearly complete gratification of its physiological demands as to leave it with an emotional impression of virtually unlimited mastery. The knee child, finding its imperious expectations thwarted by curtailment of attention, directs its anger not at the intruder but at the mother and the next older sibling. While sometimes discouraged from aggressing too strongly against these objects, it is allowed to indulge in demonstrations of rage and is given substitute gratification in the form of food tidbits. The yard child finds security and peace of mind by inhibiting rather than deflecting its hostile impulses; under threat of physical punishment it renounces selfishness in favor of duty and compliance. Rather than resist authority, the yard child learns to identify with it. Under intense emotional strain it resorts to aggressive imagery. If old enough to do so, the individual under stress may even resort to outright aggressive action.
Sibling competition does not end with early childhood, but in less direct form, competition for parental favor continues into adult life. From time to time one child will report the misdeeds of another to its parents. Parental favor is more than a matter of emotional gratification. The distribution of the family inheritance is a vital concern. While all children of both sexes are normally entitled to an equal share of agricultural land and other property, the possibility of favoritism always exists with its attendant hopes, fears and efforts to curry favor. Not infrequently disputes over property break into the open after the death of the father, siblings bringing their arguments to the village court. The authority of the court resolves conflicts of interest between siblings, and between other contestants as well, but does not completely erase personal anxiety aroused by the overt manifestation of hostility. In some cases the intensity of feelings displayed during an argument in or out of the courtroom is followed either by an alcoholic spree or a dramatic fit of self-directed rage with a patterned set of symptoms which include suffocation and violent pains in the "heart." This type of demonstration appears to be an adult equivalent of the temper tantrum in the knee child.
Before turning to the circumstances under which the sibling ritual is performed the reader should be warned that preoccupation with the antisocial factors, while dictated by the nature of the problem under discussion inevitably creates a distorted impression of San Pedro character structure which would emerge more favorably in a rounded treatment of the subject
9 These positions correspond to Margaret Mead's "lap baby," "knee baby" and "yard child." (Mead, 1947, p. 232.)
10 The volatile behavior of the Pedrano knee child in part may be due to "developmental" factors. Gesell writes of the middle class American child that the period between the ages of two and three marks a peak of instability with respect to psychomotor control. Discussing the three year old, Gesell states, "He can feel prolonged anxiety, and he is capable of jealousy. Acute jealousy may even cause him to roll on the floor, scream, and kick. A rival in the form of a new baby may arouse violent pangs of insecurity." (Gesell, 1940, p. 44.) It is especially noteworthy that Pedrano adults specifically connect the behavioral problems of knee children with the imminence of a new baby.
11 It should be noted that the structure of this doll experiment was not identical with the one in which Levy (1939) elicited repressed hostility. Our use of a single doll in a free play setting with children of variable age had the effect of evoking approved patterns of response