Written by Rick Epstein   

On the eve of Sally’s third birthday, her 6-year-old sister Marie got out the crayons and made a special poster in honor of the occasion. She drew yellow and blue balloons and streamers, and in big letters wrote: “Happy Birthday to Me! Not to Sally.”


The birthday of a sibling crystallizes a child’s feelings of rivalry like no other event can (except perhaps the reading of their father’s will). It’s an annual tragedy – the day your arch rival is showered with gifts and attention – all completely unearned.


And in our family, it’s not just for one day. It’s a season that goes on and on. The closest Saturday is the day for the kid party – a handful of chums from school and neighborhood who bring presents and play games. Then there’s the actual birth anniversary. It features a special dinner chosen according to the eccentric tastes of the honoree and the major present from Mom & Dad. On a convenient Sunday, the extended family of my in-laws gathers at their house for the cousin party to celebrate that month’s harvest of grandchildren. And don’t forget the cup-cake celebration in school, a crowning exercise in gross excess, which at least the Birthday Girl’s sister doesn’t have to witness.


At breakfast on the morning Marie turned 7, preliterate Sally picked up one of her sister’s birthday cards and pretended to read: “Dear Marie, happy birthday. I hope you love your little sister.”


Three-year-old Sally and I went to the pet shop while Marie was in school and bought an aquarium and six fish – five for the Birthday Girl and one for Sally. Sally seemed to have no problem with this until I set up the fish-tank on Marie’s dresser. Thus the birthday-present status of this new treasure was made clear to her. She went into a sulk and wouldn’t speak to her new Red Swordtail for several hours. Neither would she name it or let us name it. The next day she unbent enough to let us call it Mr. No-Name.


Although Sally’s own birthday was still almost five months away, her sister’s celebrations gave the event a prominent place in her daily thoughts. One night, in the middle of a bedtime story, Sally interrupted to make an announcement. With her index finger poking the air for emphasis, she stated, “I don’t want the wrong kids coming to my birthday party.”


Since the birth of our second and third children, sibling rivalry is as much an element in my environment as snow is in an Eskimo’s world. And just as Eskimos are expert at distinguishing among its subtle textures and temperatures (with their alleged 40 different words for it), so do I recognize the subtle shadings and categories of sibling rivalry. Birthday envy is one subgroup, but little sister Sally's birthday envy is of a different species from her big sister’s.


For Sally it’s a season of tribulation like a drought or the Great Depression. She tries to make the best of it while waiting for it to pass and looking forward to happier times.

For her big sister, it’s a time of resentment. Marie feels the way a person does when his layabout next-door neighbor wins a million-dollar lottery. But it’s even more personal than that. She feels that when her little sister receives any emotional or material goodies, it is all coming out of Marie’s share.


On Sally’s fourth birthday, another trip was made to the pet shop for more fish. I bought some fish and I suggested that Marie to use her allowance money to buy a finny friend for her sister. Maybe by fanning into flame Marie's ember of grudging affection for her sister, the joy of giving could squeeze out birthday envy.


The endless maneuvering for advantage between the sisters is so fundamental to their existence that asking one to buy a gift for the other is like asking an athlete to throw a game. Half the child’s personal philosophy must be re-examined and re-worked. Despite the high emotional cost, Marie did buy a fish. The fact that she’d chosen a Black Mollie was not lost on me. (Once when Marie was very little and very angry, she drew a heart, colored it black, and handed it to me.) But I felt we’d taken a baby-step in the right direction.


Months passed and Sally’s celebrations were fading into history, when one morning Marie came down to join us all at breakfast and, in a voice that was strangely cheerful for the early hour, she announced, “Hey Sally, your birthday present died.”


Rick Epstein can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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