If you have a younger sibling, at some point in life, you probably considered them an annoying, little creature, constantly getting in your way, breaking your toys, and trying to play with your friends. Maybe that’s still the case. Or maybe you’re the younger one, in which case we apologize for the previous statement. (And the upcoming statement.) It turns out the younger children in the family hierarchy aren’t merely the attention-stealing interlopers we once thought they were.
Researchers at the University of Calgary, Université Laval, Tel Aviv University and the University of Toronto published a paper in the journal of Child Development, which demonstrates how younger brothers and sisters actually help teach their older siblings to be empathetic. And here we were thinking they were just total pains in the butt!
“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,” study coauthor Marc Jambon, who is a fellow at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.
Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, younger sisters were more impactful in terms of teaching empathy to their older siblings than younger brothers, particularly when said older sibling was a female. The research, which looked at the interactions of over 450 Canadian sibling pairs between 18 months and four years old, also suggests that the larger the age gap between siblings, the more impactful the empathy lessons will be.
So, if you have a child you wish would cultivate a bit more empathy, just give them a younger sibling, preferably a girl, preferably not too close in age. Okay, so it’s not quite that simple, but the findings do shed some light on the family dynamic, and how it — the presence or absence of siblings — can affect a child’s development.
“Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development,” Sheri Madigan, another co-author on the study, said.
It may take a community to raise a child, but an annoying little sibling also helps.