If you’re an older sibling, then maybe you sometimes wonder why your parents even bothered to have other children.
I kid, I kid. I love my sister, and actually both she and I always begged for more siblings (to no avail).
Younger siblings sometimes get a bad rap as attention-seeking, trouble-causing rebels, but science now confirms that they play an important role in the development of their older brothers and sisters: they teach them empathy.
Sibling studies have often skewed more toward confirming the idea that older siblings play an important role in the development of their baby brothers and sisters, so this one is unique and enlightening.
“Although it’s assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socializing influences on younger siblings’ development, but not vice versa, we found that both younger and older siblings positively contributed to each other’s empathy over time.,” revealed study coauthor Marc Jambon.
So, while studies have demonstrated that older siblings can have majorly influence their younger sibs on everything from timely motor development to a risk (or non-risk) of smoking later in life, Jambon and his team think they have shown that younger sibs give as good as they get.
The research focused on a group of 452 sibling pairs between the ages of 18 months and 4 years, first assessing baseline empathy levels by visiting the kids at home, then returning 18 months later to see whether siblings affected how the children reacted to mild distress in others.
They controlled for parenting style, demographic characteristics, and sibling relationship quality, and still found small – but statistically significant – increases in empathy on their return visit.
“These findings stayed the same, even after taking into consideration each child’s earlier levels of empathy and factors that siblings in a family share – such as parenting practices or the family’s socioeconomic status – that could explain similarities between them,” confirmed Jambon.
That is, except for the older sisters of younger brothers. That group, for some reason, showed no visible change in empathy after 18 months, and researchers aren’t sure why those pairs didn’t follow the crowd.
Future studies are needed, of course (though if you asked some grown pairs, I’m sure they would have some theories).