Younger siblings teach older siblings empathy, says study – but there’s a catch

You probably know your baby of the house is learning a tonne from his big sibling, but now a study says it’s your youngest who is actually teaching your older kid a very important thing.

Lessons in empathy 

He might snatch his brother’s favourite digger from him and play on his nerves a lot of the time, but new research published in Child Development suggests that younger kids can actually teach their older siblings a thing or two about empathy.

The researchers assessed 452 Canadian sibling pairs between the ages of 18 months and four years old and made some interesting findings.

After video recording the older kids’ empathetic reaction to them pretending to get hurt or breaking something important, the researchers returned to each household a year and a half later and made an interesting observation.

More caring kids

Upon their return, the researchers noted small but significant increases in empathy in most of the older siblings.

Study leader, Marc Jambon, explained that although it’s assumed older siblings and parents are the main influences on a younger child’s development, this study shows how influential younger siblings are to an older sibling’s social and emotional development.

“We found that both younger and older siblings positively contributed to each other’s empathy over time,” he said in a statement.

“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,” he added.

Now for the catch

Interestingly or perhaps funny, older sisters didn’t appear to develop higher levels of empathy after living for a year and a half with a younger brother.

As to why this particular sibling dynamic yielded a different result, the researchers say further research is needed.

Firsthand experience

Last night I got parented by my preschooler for accidentally turning off the bathroom light when his younger brother was still in the room.

“Naughty Mummy. Sam is scared of the dark. Don’t do that again,” he scolded as I apologised to my frightened little guy with tears welling up in his eyes. 

My eldest son was genuinely upset with me that I’d upset his brother, the same brother who steals his Paw Patrol toy and whose idea of showing him affection is to jump on him.  

As the study suggests, seeing the world through my younger son’s eyes and feeling what he thinks he’s feeling is how my older boy is learning about empathy. And that’s a lesson that I need a my littlest to help me teach.

Unless my big boy was a girl, according to this study the empathy lessons don’t work! Now go and figure that one out, please researchers.  

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