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Nurture Shock: Chapter 6 – The Sibling Effect

There is a common misconception that being an only child is in some way detrimental to that child’s social development.  The theory is that being an only child deprives that child of the many interactions he would otherwise have with a sibling which would go a long way towards fostering the development of his social skills.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  Children with siblings are no better off at getting along with other children compared to children without siblings.

What the studies have found about sibling relationships:

  • Children treat their siblings with more negative and controlling statements than they do their friends.  This is believed to be due to the fact that friends aren’t bound to the relationship the way siblings are.  Siblings will be there tomorrow no matter what, as a result, the relationship can be pushed to the limits beyond those of friendship.
  • Sibling relationships don’t change much over the years.  The quality of the relationship during childhood remains the same over the years and into adulthood unless there has been a significant change in the family, e.g. divorce, death, or illness.
  • Although siblings fight a lot, they can still have strong relationships.  It is the net-positive result between the fights and the good times shared that determine the strength of the relationship.  Siblings who ignored each other and had less fighting tended to stay cold and distant in the long term.
  • To foster stronger relations between siblings it is important to help them learn to play together.  Most activities that children are scheduled into during their lives are usually age-segregated.  It is important to teach siblings how to overcome the age difference and find activities they can enjoy together.
  • Being able to initiate play that both children enjoy can help prevent conflict.
  • Negative relationships between siblings are being learned from the very books intended to foster stronger sibling relationships.  Many of these stories begin by setting up a story of conflict which eventually gets resolved in a happy ending.  Unfortunately, the books are also teaching the children negative behaviours and new ways to be cruel to their siblings.
  • Despite the common belief that sibling rivalry stems from the loss of parental attention, studies show that it is more about claiming possession over toys.  An overwhelming majority of fights were due to fights over toys.
  • It is important to teach young children how to develop prosocial relationships with their siblings in order to get them to get along.
  • Gender differences and the age gap between siblings is not a strong predictor in how well siblings get along.
  • One of the best predictors for how well siblings get along is determined before the birth of the younger child – the quality of the older child’s relationship with his best friend.  Older siblings acquire their social skills from their relationships with other children and apply what they learn on their younger siblings.
  • Shared fantasy play is another factor that helps foster stronger relationships because it requires emotional commitment and awareness of what the other child is doing.
  • Older children need to have developed these positive social skills before the younger sibling arrives because there is usually no motivation to change when the younger sibling arrives.  This is because siblings are prisoners who have been genetically sentenced to live together and have no time off for good behaviour.

The aim is to “transform children’s relationships from sibship to something more akin to a real friendship.  If kids enjoy one another’s presence, then quarreling comes at a new cost.  The penalty for fighting is no longer just a time-out, but the loss of a worthy opponent.”  It is the relationship that children have with other children that forces them to develop new skills rather than the relationship they have with their parents because getting what they want from a parent is easy.  Other children don’t care that they are hungry or that they have a bruised knee because chances are those children also have one too.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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