Youngest children have better social skills thanks to their older brother or sister

Three-year-old children growing up with an older brother or sister are more socially developed than the eldest children of the family were at the same age. Sheila van Berkel has reached that conclusion after studying 390 different families. PhD defence 10 March.

Imitating their siblings

Younger children are more empathic, better at sharing and more obedient that their oldest siblings were at that same age. From the data gathered, Van Berkel concludes that siblings already start influencing each other’s development at a very young age. ‘Brothers and sisters are learning from each other whenever they are arguing or playing together. Younger children learn to imitate the social behaviour of their brothers and sisters. The interactions between their brother or sister and their parents also influences them, as it teaches the younger children what is and isn’t acceptable at a faster rate.’

Parents have more experience

Another possible explanation for these differences in social progress could be found in the experience that parents have gained while raising their first child. Van Berkel speculates that parents are more capable of stimulating the social development of their younger children because they’ve already done it all before.

A study of 390 families

Parents are more experienced when raising a second child, which may have an effect on the social development of second and subsequent children.

Parents are more experienced when raising a second child, which may have an effect on the social development of second and subsequent children.

The notion that younger children imitate the behaviour of older brothers and sisters isn’t new, but Van Berkel’s research is one of the few large-scale studies that looks at various aspects of social development over a longer period of time. Over the past four years, she visited 390 different families at least once a year. Each of these families had at least two children; the oldest participating child was about three years old, while the youngest was just one.

Filming the interaction between parents and children

During these visits, various domestic situations were filmed to gain a better understanding of how fathers, mothers and children all interact with each other. Van Berkel and her Leiden colleagues filmed situations such as sharing a pack of raisins and children receiving instructions from mum and dad. The parents also filled in questionnaires about the behaviour of their children.

Young children tend to be more rebellious

From the results it has become apparent that the youngest children develop just one less-favourable social characteristic: they tend to be more rebellious and aggressive than their eldest sibling. ‘That’s probably because they feel the need to stand up to their brother or sister to get attention from their parents,’ Van Berkel explains.

Only girls with an older brother show less impulsive behaviour than their older sibling

Fewer differences between older children.

Fewer differences between older children.

The study also revealed another interesting result: girls with an older brother form the only group of children exhibiting less impulsive behaviour than their eldest sibling. No such differences were seen in groups of two brothers, two sisters or even in families with a younger brother and an older sister. ‘Boys typically show more impulsive behaviour. This could have something to do with conventions in sex-specific upbringing, as parents are more likely to correct impulsive behaviour in girls than they would in boys.’

More awareness is needed to improve social interaction within families

Van Berkel’s research also revealed that differences in social behaviour patterns decrease as children grow up. Nonetheless, she still advocates more awareness about the effects of social interaction within a family. ‘More attention should be given to the effects of brothers and sisters on the social/emotional development of children, both in academic studies and in counselling for parents.’

PhD defence Sheila van Berkel - Growing up together

(10 March 2015)

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PEducation and Child Studies

Education and Child Studies

Last Modified: 12-03-2015