Having A Sibling Helps Develop Greater Empathy In Children, Study Finds

WASHINGTON — Older siblings may take it upon themselves to show their younger brother or sister the ways of the world, but little do they know their kid sibling is also helping them become better humans too. One recent study shows that younger and older siblings positively influence one another’s development of empathy.

Researchers from several international universities analyzed survey responses from a diverse set of 452 Canadian sibling pairs who come from wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. They wanted to see whether empathy levels in 18-month and 48-month-old siblings at the start of the study were indicative of changes in other siblings’ empathy levels 18 months later.

To gauge how empathic a child was, the children’s mothers filled out questionnaires and the researchers filmed interactions between the children inside each family’s home. At some point, the researcher would feign injury by bumping a knee on a chair or getting a finger stuck in a briefcase, for example. At another point, the researcher would also act distressed, perhaps from breaking a cherished object.

“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,” says Marc Jambon, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and former fellow at the University of Calgary when the study was conducted, in a media release. “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.”

Interestingly, gender did play a role when it came to families with older sisters and younger brothers.

“The effects stayed the same for all children in the study with one exception: Younger brothers didn’t contribute to significant changes in older sisters’ empathy,” says Jambon.

They also found the influence an older brother or sister had on a younger sibling was stronger when the age difference between the two was greater. That finding lends credence to the thought that older siblings are better role models when they’re significantly older.

“Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development,” says Sheri Madigan, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. “The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought.”

The study was published in the journal Child Development. 

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