A new multi-university study finds that both older and younger siblings, even toddlers, can have a significant influence on the other’s capacity for empathy.
The study, published in the journal Child Development, was conducted by researchers at the University of Calgary, Universite Laval in Quebec City, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Toronto.
Like parents, older brothers and sisters act as role models and teachers, helping their younger siblings learn about the world. Children whose older siblings are kind, warm, and supportive, for example, tend to be more empathetic than children whose siblings lack these traits.
In the new longitudinal study, researchers wanted to know whether very young children can also contribute to their older sibling’s capacity for empathy in early childhood, when empathetic tendencies begin to develop.
“Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children’s development,” said Dr. Sheri Madigan, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, who co-authored the study.
“The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought.”
For the study, the researchers observed an ethnically diverse group of 452 Canadian sibling pairs and their mothers who were part of the Kids, Families, and Places project and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
The researchers wanted to see whether levels of empathy in 18- and 48-month-old siblings at the start of the study predicted changes in the other siblings’ empathy 18 months later.
Each of the mothers completed a questionnaire and the researchers videotaped the family interactions. Children’s empathy was measured by observing each sibling’s behavioral and facial responses to an adult researcher who pretended to be distressed (e.g., after breaking a cherished object) and hurt (e.g., after hitting her knee and catching her finger in a briefcase).
“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 Dr. Marc Jambon, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, who was at the University of Calgary when he led the study.
“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.”
The study also looked at whether siblings’ development of empathy differed as a result of age and gender differences between siblings (e.g., younger brother/older sister versus younger brother/older brother).
“The effects stayed the same for all children in the study with one exception: Younger brothers didn’t contribute to significant changes in older sisters’ empathy,” Jambon noted.
The impact of older brothers and sisters was also stronger in families in which the age difference between the siblings was greater, suggesting they were more effective teachers and role models.
The researchers say that the next step is to determine if and how empathic tendencies can be cultivated in young children, and whether teaching one sibling, either older or younger, can in turn affect the empathy of the other sibling. Such work would also help answer the bigger question of how family interventions aimed can benefit from focusing on sibling relationships.