You Can Thank Your Younger Sibling for Teaching You Empathy, Says Science

two cute child baby girls playing and having fun on the bed. loving sisters hug
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As a mom of three kids, I can only hope that my kids have a positive influence on each other’s lives, despite the wrestling matches and fights over personal space that occur daily in our house. I hope they will treasure their sibling relationships for a lifetime, even though there are times where they can barely exist in the same room with each other.

While science has studied the impact that older siblings have on younger siblings, not a lot of research has been done to look at how younger siblings influence older kids.

But, a recent study published in Child Development has revealed a slight, but notable increase in empathy for kids who have a younger sibling. So, maybe despite all the sibling fighting and rivalry, younger siblings might be good for our kids after all.

The Canadian study focused on a group of 452 pairs of siblings between the ages of 18 months and 4 years old and assessed their baseline empathy levels before having a sibling in the home. They returned after a year and a half of living with a younger sibling and found that their empathy levels had increased.

The findings don’t surprise me much, because although my kids fight quite a bit, there are moments when they truly look out for each other — both inside and outside of the home. They care when the other gets hurt, when something isn’t fair, or when someone is being mean to them at school.

And it makes sense. How could the chance to watch over and play with a younger sibling on a daily basis not impact their feelings of empathy towards others? Having kids of my own, it seems obvious.

Sheri Madigan, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development and co-author of the study stated, “Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development.”

I know from firsthand experience how complex sibling relationships can be, and how they have influenced my own life as well. I like to think that despite the struggles we may have with sibling relationships growing up, it still benefits us in the long run to grow up with siblings around us.

One notable exception to the findings made me laugh. It was discovered that sisters don’t seem to benefit much in the empathy department from having the influence of little brothers. My oldest daughter tends to be annoyed by her little brothers quite often. Still, I know she loves them and wants the best for them, despite their little brother antics.

Interestingly, Marc Jambon, co-author of the study stated:

“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.”

I think it’s also comforting to know that the babies of the family aren’t only about getting all the attention or getting their way all the time. They are actually helping their older siblings gain the important life skill of empathy. And really, that’s something worth celebrating.

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