This weekend I was at an excellent birthday garden party where there were a number of children. One of the more amusing moments was watching two sisters – both in their tweens – running around shooting each other to death with Nerf guns. They both seemed to have an unlimited appetite for firing foam projectiles at each other and then providing graphic explanations of what, at least in their fantasies, the terrible wounds these weapons of mass destruction had inflicted. Briefly they ganged up on another boy (he asked for it) but soon went back to the preferred activity of taking each other out (until, inevitably, one of them actually got hit where it hurt, resulting in the elder of the two pretending ignorance to her mother before giving me a look of smug satisfaction). Now, from conversations with several people, this scenario is extremely recognisable as being similar to much of their childhood. This concept that your siblings are both the preferred target and occasional ally seems to be universal, the weapons and severity may change but the principle seems quite constant to me. My father for instance grew up with a large number of uncles and aunts. The general principle was this – they had a go at each other, but if anyone outside the family criticised any sibling then the ranks were closed and whichever unfortunate who had had the audacity to say something negative about a brother or sister would find united and terrible wrath aimed in their direction. I recall vividly Christmas day in the afternoon, when I would be sent over the road with my Grandmother to see my Great Aunt – her sister. Usually things would be fine for about a sherry and a piece of cake. But if the visit reached certain time duration – let’s call it the ‘second sherry stage’ I quickly began to realise that trouble was brewing. The smiles started to fade and the conversation would become shorter, snappier and blunt. My Grandfather – when he was around – and I would start to get uncomfortable and look at our watches, wondering at what point we could reasonably suggest rejoining my parents. I had always assumed that I was sent over the road in an effort to get everyone else out of the house to allow my parents a brief moment of Christmas day on their own; while I am sure they took advantage of that, I suspect now I was sent in much the same way as boron rods are plunged into a nuclear reactor to keep the reaction at a controllable level, as open warfare would not break out when I was in the room. On that, at least, both these (utterly lovely and sorely missed by me) relatives of mine could agree. So I just ate more delicious cake and waited. Do I feel short changed not having had any siblings? No, and it is a bit of dumb rhetorical question as with a lot of things in life there are positives and minuses and we are all a product of our upbringings. I never missed having a brother or sister as a child, and I am not sure I would have found the inevitable competition something to relish. However, it does mean that no one else is there to help take responsibility when close family are ill or need attention, and recent events affecting the Lovely Wife’s slightly larger family have shown how brothers and sisters can share support in a way that is incredibly effective. And you always have someone to blame when you are a child when things go wrong (hard luck first born children – you’re always going to be the one that is old enough to know better). But the biologist in me says this is all very normal and healthy, providing there is balance, and I firmly believe that providing the home environment is a good one, the relationship has a better chance of not considering murder on a daily basis. In fact I know some sibling relationships that seem so close and harmonious I have to wonder what’s going on there, and rather hope that behind closed doors the claws sometimes come out. Maybe I should buy them some Nerf guns.