A new study has found siblings can have a dramatic impact on each other's development. Researchers at the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto in Canada found, for example, that warmth and support from an older sibling can help boost a younger sibling's language development and their understanding of others' point of view.
This is exciting because although researchers have spent a lot of time studying how parents can influence their children's personalities, less attention has been placed on the influence siblings can have on each other.
"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," said lead researcher Marc Jambon. "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."
A child who shows strong empathy skills is one who is able to show feelings of care and concern for others when they need it.
The study found that children who are kind, supportive and understanding can influence their siblings to behave in a similar way. And if a sibling who struggles to display empathy has an empathic brother or sister, over time they will become more empathic themselves.
Learning how to be empathic while young can lead to lifelong strengths in treating others with kindness, respect and understanding – and these children can grow up to be empathic friends, spouses and parents.
Although older siblings generally have a greater influence over younger ones, it's also interesting to note that younger siblings can have an influence over older siblings, if they are the more empathic of the two. Basically, as long as one sibling is empathic, all will benefit.
That is, with the exception of large age differences, and young brothers and older sisters. The study found younger brothers had no significant influence over their older sisters.
"Our findings emphasise the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children's development," said co-author Sheri Madigan. "The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought."
So as parents, it's a relief to know the burden isn't all on us to ensure our kids grow up to be decent human beings. They'll also be helping each other.