Think your younger siblings had nothing to offer you while growing up but strife? While it’s certainly true that older siblings do a lot for their younger brothers and sisters, it turns out that the younger members of a family actually have something valuable to teach those born before them: empathy.
According to a recent study published in the journal Child Development, both older and younger siblings positively influence each other’s sense of empathetic concern over time.
“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,” said Marc Jambon, a researcher who led the study, in a press release.
The researchers studied a group of 452 ethnically diverse pairs of siblings in Canada between the ages of 18 months and 4 years old. The families were from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. But how does one measure empathy?
The families were videotaped in their homes and parents completed questionnaires. Empathy was measured by observing kids’ responses to an adult who pretended to be in distress after hurting themselves or breaking something valuable. After recording the kids’ baseline levels of empathy, they returned 18 months later to see how living with a younger sibling had influenced how they would behave in the same situation.
This is one of only a few studies that have directly examined the influence of younger siblings on the development of empathy in older siblings, and not vice versa. Researchers were particularly stuck by how even very young children can impact their older siblings’ development of that trait.
“What I find remarkable is the demonstration that children under the age of 3 years do play a meaningful role in shaping their elder siblings’ empathic concern,” said Laurie Kramer, an applied psychology professor who has studied siblings for more than 20 years, to Quartz of her reaction to the study. “We don’t ordinarily think that 3 year olds can have this kind of influence on their older siblings, but they can.”
She was not involved in the study but also told the news outlet that this is one of very few studies that did not presume, at the outset, that it’s up to older kids to teach their younger siblings.
So, next time your older sibling is bragging about how they taught you everything you know, remind them that you had a hand in their development as well!
Have you noticed your own kids — or ones you know — taking on a more empathetic attitude after younger siblings were introduced to their lives?