How We Are Our Sister's Keeper: The Importance of Cultivating Sibling Relationships
A new study suggests that helping to cultivate the relationships between your children can make a difference when it comes to cognitive ability.
I’ve heard a lot from friends who have two more or more children about how the older sibling helps to raise the younger one. They’ve seen the younger child potty train quicker than the first. They’ve also seen the expanse of the younger sibling’s vocabulary grow exponentially. In a sense, the older brother or sister serves as a model for the younger, especially as they can relate to each other more with their pint-size stature. So with the birth of Olive, and my own big sister, little sister scenario playing out, it excites me to see what kind of impact Abby has on helping her sister to grow not only socially and emotionally, but also cognitively.
According to Reuters, researchers in Canada have been studying this sibling phenomenon to get a grasp on how older siblings can influence younger ones. They’ve seen a correlation between the relationship of siblings and the younger sibling’s cognitive abilities. In fact, within their study, they mostly noted how younger siblings don’t stack up to older siblings’ abilities when the relationship between brothers and sisters isn’t cultivated, though this overall association is small. It’s important to note, too, that if the older sibling scored high during observed interactions, the younger sibling tended to as well.
This study is just a first step in understanding the workings of familial relationships amongst children. Jennifer Jenkins, the study’s senior author at the University of Toronto, said, “I’d like people to think about those sibling relationships a little bit more and then how to strengthen them.” And I feel that those of my friends who are seeing these positive outcomes when it comes to the influence older siblings have on younger are on the cusp of knowing how to nurture this.
Reading about this study has shown me that this whole older sibling helping to raise the younger sibling phenomenon isn’t just about their interactions. It’s also about the parents’ encouraging role for these positive outcomes to be realized. Even though Olive is only 8 weeks old, I’ve already found myself inspiring my oldest to interact with her. Abby sometimes gets frustrated that baby sister can’t do much in the playing department, yet she’ll still have conversations with her. Once when Olive was being fussy and I couldn’t get to her right away, I asked Abby to keep baby sister company, and Abby even pretended to be Olive’s voice when she told her a knock-knock joke. I’ve also encouraged Abby to talk to Olive about the food she’s eating and how healthy it is as a two-fold attempt to inspire Abby to eat her foods too.
As I think about how Abby developed into the smart, sassy, sensitive and intuitive little girl she is now, I reflect on what roles my husband and I played to enrich her little life. For one, we talked to her a lot as an infant. My husband would speak to her as he prepared meals, simply explaining all that he was doing. And every time he’d walk up the stairs, he’d count them to her, even when she was an infant. The ABC’s was sung to her over and over and over. And even when Abby was more so interested in nomming books, my husband and I would take turns reading to her every day, all the while trying to wrestle the board book out of her mouth. We knew how important it was for Abby to begin soaking up all the nuggets of knowledge we had to offer her.
I look at these early experiences Abby had with the full attention of two parents, and I think about how more times than not, my husband and I would find ourselves only able to give full attention to one child at a time. The study suggests that this is a part of why some younger siblings don’t measure up to the older sibling. So with this knowledge, I know to keep encouraging this interaction between the girls. Abby can count objects for her. She can let her know about colors as she shows Olive a picture she drew. She can point to the letters in her and Olive’s names. And the best part is that so far, Abby gets such joy over the moments she gets to share with baby sister, and I know this joy, with a giant smile on her face, is passed on to her little sister, as Olive smiles back.
So far it’s been pretty amazing to see my two girls together. There’s been a concern that with their four year age difference that Abby wouldn’t be interested in baby sister that much, but I can already see a close bond forming. Though Olive has just begun smiling and cooing, it’s very apparent that she’s fully aware of big sister and totally reacts in a positive way when she’s around. She is closer to her size after all. Families with more than one child don’t need to worry about how the younger sibling(s) will fare as long as the parents do their part to foster lasting relationships amongst their children. The benefits are huge, and so worth it, despite whatever age difference there might be.
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