There is a great book written by Anna Quindlen titled, appropriately enough, Siblings; it contains a collection of essays about the complex, yet wonderful relationships between brothers and sisters. In an essay in the book, she writes: "I don’t understand how people learn to live in the world if they haven’t had siblings. . . . Everything I learned about negotiation, territoriality, coexistence, dislike, inbred differences and love despite knowledge I learned from [her siblings]. . . . In some essential way, they were my universe, even more than my parents.”
In those two sentences, Quindlen gets right to the heart of the important role that big/little brothers/sisters play in one another’s lives. Sure, big brothers and sisters are there to help with homework, teach their younger siblings how to drive and generally pave the way for the later born children to follow. But, the effects of the brother/sister relationship go much broader and deeper than that. Whether they are older or younger, whether we get along with them or not, our brothers and sisters probably have the biggest influence on most facets of our social and academic development. Let’s face it, they are our contemporaries: we’ve shared parents, bathrooms, bedrooms and secrets with them. They’ve seen us at our very best and our very worst. And, in most cases, they know what makes us tick.
The full dynamics of sibling relationships are far too complex to be discussed in this forum. Suffice it to say there are hundreds, if not thousands of factors that influence how well siblings will get along and for how long. Among these factors are gender, age, birth order and spacing. For example, the relationship between sisters born a year apart will likely be dramatically different from what it would be if those same sisters were born five years apart. And, it’s also very likely that the nature of the relationship will change as these siblings age: sisters that were inseparable as children may go through adulthood as strangers to one another, and brothers who fought constantly growing up very well can become best friends as they grow older.
In spite of the ups and downs associated with growing up with brothers and sisters, our siblings actually serve as our first teachers, and the lessons we learn from them will last our entire lives. Sometimes the lessons are obvious such as learning the letters of the alphabet or how to add during an impromptu game of 'school.' Others are far more subtle: learning to compromise, share, and trust all are by-products of being one of at least two children within a family.
The learning process begins early; Dr. James M. Herzog suggests it can begin as early as 15 to 18 months, which is the time the younger child’s motor skills allow him to imitate the physical accomplishments of an older sibling. Because of their desire to keep up with an older brother or sister, later-born children may reach certain developmental milestones sooner than their older siblings. And chances are that this trend will continue as the children age and the pattern of emulation grows to include social as well as physical pursuits. For example, the younger child watching his older sibling learn how to play a musical instrument may begin his own study at an earlier age.
All of this is not to say that it is only the younger child that benefits from a sibling relationship. Older children, particularly those who enjoyed only child status for a time before a brother or sister’s arrival, may relish their new position of role model. Knowing that he or she is being looked up to can be a tremendous confidence booster for first-born children who might otherwise feel displaced by a new sibling. If there is a fairly large (at least three years) age difference, the older child may take on the role of protector for a younger sibling, and in the process learn about responsibility.
As the younger child grows older, he begins to learn even more from his siblings. As a child reaches the age of three, he becomes aware of how his older sibling’s world has been enriched with the addition of friends. Soon, he learns that friends provide all sort of new opportunities, interactions and experiences. Because the younger child has had the opportunity to observe an older brother or sister interact with friends, and perhaps form their own relationships with these friends, it is likely that he will make friends more easily than if he had not had this opportunity.
Dr. Charles Flatter points out that it is also about this time that young children begin to understand the rules of compromise. By observing his older siblings negotiate differences with their playmates, the younger child begins to realize that persuasion often is much more effective than intimidation. Consequently, once he begins to build peer relationships of his own, he will likely be able to resolve differences much more effectively and in the process, may find it somewhat easier to make friends.