It has been common knowledge that younger siblings learn the most from their older siblings. But a study revealed that younger siblings teach their older siblings the most important lesson of all: empathy.
A new study finds that younger siblings teach their older siblings empathy. Younger siblings are widely regarded as the ones who benefit from their older siblings, but this new study is turning that notion on its head.
Published in the online journal Child Development, the research from the University of Calgary, Canada, confirms the fact that younger siblings teach their older siblings too. In particular, younger siblings prevent older ones from turning into selfish young people.
“Although it’s assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socialising 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,” says the study’s co-author, Marc Jambon. He’s also a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.
More eyes on older siblings
Quite naturally, studies disproportionately focus on an older sibling’s influence on their younger siblings because their influence is much more visible.
“Developmentally we place a lot of emphasis on parents and older siblings driving children’s development,” says Jambon. Why? Because the older siblings are, well, older, more knowledgeable, and more powerful in the family structure.
To be fair, though, there have been isolated studies that tried to investigate younger siblings’ influence on older siblings, but for the most part, they remained elusive.
A study on empathy
In this new study, Jambon and his team looked into an ethnically diverse group of 452 Canadian pairs of siblings. The kids range from 18 months to four years old.
The research team observed and assessed the children’s empathy levels as their baseline at the beginning of the study. They opted to observe rather than ask the parents themselves about their kids’ empathy.
They did this by visiting the children at their homes and played with each child separately. In the play session, the researchers would pretend to hurt themselves or break a toy they liked. The researchers then noted and recorded how the kids reacted to the team member’s distress.
After 18 months, they returned to the kids’ houses. They checked how the kids changed during a year and a half of growing up with siblings.
Younger siblings help older siblings empathise
Once the researchers took into account parenting style, demographic characteristics, and sibling relationship quality, they still found small but statistically significant increases in empathy after a year and a half.
“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,” Jambon said.
There’s just one weird exception. Older sisters didn’t seem to have increased empathy after a year and a half with their little brothers!
It takes a village
The research team are not sure why this specific configuration in siblings (older sister, younger brother) go against the trend, but they recommend delving further with more studies on complex sibling dynamics that affect empathy in children.
“What I find remarkable is the demonstration that children under the age of three years do play a meaningful role in shaping their elder siblings’ empathic concern,” says Laurie Kramer. Kramer is a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University. She has studied siblings for more than two decades though she was not involved in the research.
“We don’t ordinarily think that three-year-olds can have this kind of influence on their older siblings, but they can,” Kramer says.
Now this is great. Why? Because it takes a bit of the burden away from the parents. Atter all, the parents’ influence also affects the development of empathy in kids.
YOU CAN ALSO READ: Men with sisters are happier, better communicators, studies show