Whiz Kids

Why sibling interaction is unique and beneficial.

By PT Staff, published on September 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Having an older brother or sister may be a life-long lesson in humanity. But you'll be smarter for it.

Granted, kids learn a lot from their peers. But they learn even more from older siblings, reports psychologist Margarita Azmitia, Ph.D., of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

She and a colleague set kids down with building blocks and older sibs or their peers. Senior sibs end up guiding baby sisters and brothers more spontaneously than their friends in building exercises, the researchers report in Child Development (Vol. 64, No. 4).

Older sibs provided more positive feedback and explanations than peers when teaching tots how to build windmills. And young sibs "observed, imitated, and consulted" older sibs more than they did peers. When asked to build windmills by themselves, the tots taught by older sibs fared the best.

It's not that sibs are any better teachers than peers. Funny thing is, sibs and peers used similar strategies to teach the tots. But younger sibs are better learners in sibling interactions. They badger their older sibs for more explanations. They challenge them more often. "Why put that block on that one? Why not stick it over here?" And when they'd had enough of watching, they demand a go at it. "My turn, my turn!"

Sibs can behave more aggressively around each other because they are not afraid of ticking each other off. Tomorrow their sibs will still be...their sibs. Peers, on the other hand, may hold a grudge.

Kids learn much from older sibs also by way of the role model factor: they want to be just like their older sisters and brothers. They follow them around, copying every move. Until junior high school hits; then it's just uncool for the older sib to hang out with his "baby bro."

Families that encourage lots of sibling interaction help kids learn from older sibs. "This country doesn't emphasize the sibling network as much as other countries," says Azmitia, but things are looking up. As parents devote more time to work, siblings are spending more time together.