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Family Dynamics

How Siblings Teach Each Other…Or Don’t

Will only children be disadvantaged?

From braiding hair to playing a sport to solving tricky math equations, siblings can teach each other a lot about the world. In a recent study published in the Journal of Cognition and Development, scientists at Concordia University observed siblings interacting at home — within 39 middle-class households in Canada — to unearth exactly how siblings teach each other.

Previous experiments have only been in lab settings. Professor Nina Howe, one of the study’s authors, said, “Lab experiments often focus on how-to instruction, such as the steps in building a tower of blocks. That’s what we call procedural knowledge, which older children often like to teach.”

The researchers found that younger children, age 4, often ask older siblings, age 6, more conceptual questions at home, such as how to count, how to differentiate the days of the week or how to put together a puzzle.

For sibling-to-sibling instruction to be most effective, parents need to bow out. Howe stressed that parents should let children play uninterrupted so meaningful interactions can happen naturally.

Howe and her colleagues point out, “Young siblings not only are capable of teaching one another, but that they do so with quite remarkable frequency during the course of ongoing naturalistic conversations and interactions while playing together at home.”

They conclude, “Our findings provide ample evidence that the role of siblings in fostering one another’s knowledge must not be underestimated.”

Are only children short-changed?

Young siblings teach each other, but does that mean only children miss out? We all know siblings, young and old, who have what appears to be supportive, picture perfect relationships — perhaps teaching each other. Watching them may sway you toward wanting a sibling for your only child.

A participant in one of my studies envied her cousin who had 9- and 12-year-old sons, saying, “They are unbelievably sweet together and it makes me want a sibling for my daughter. I know their compatibility is rare. I think these boys are freaks of nature. It looks like winning the lottery.”

Learning comes from many sources, not just siblings. While Howe’s study shows that in some families, sibling interaction can deepen a young child’s learning experience, this in no way means that every pair or group of siblings is a positive influence on each other. Often those interactions smack of rivalry, disagreement, and require constant parental intervention. The age span between siblings can limit this type of education as well.

As someone who writes often about dispelling the negative and overused stereotypes about only children — namely, that lacking siblings they are automatically at a social disadvantage — I worry that this study could be interpreted in a way that suggests only children will be less acquainted with their world than children with siblings.

For parents of only children, there needs to be a clearer understanding of the positive outcomes of not having siblings and the many other sources of learning children have—parents, peers, relatives. Relying on the fact that your children might teach other is probably not a sound reason to add to your family.

Related: Plays Well with Others; What Difference Do Siblings Make?; Fueling Stereotypes — A Cautionary Tale, The Dark Side of Siblings


Howe, Nina. Sandra Della Porta, Holly Recchia, Allyson Funamoto, Hildy Ross. “’This Bird Can't Do It 'cause this Bird Doesn't Swim in Water’”: Sibling Teaching during Naturalistic Home Observations in Early Childhood.” Journal of Cognition and Development, 2013; 131018115134003 DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2013.848869

Newman, Susan. The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide. New York: Health Communications, Inc., 2011

Copyright @ 2015 by Susan Newman

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