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Younger Siblings Teach Older Siblings Empathy, Study Confirms

Scientists have finally figured out what younger siblings do, other than demand attention.

Baby siblings teach their older brothers and sisters empathy, new research reveals. Until now, younger kids have generally been regarded as attention hogs who learn plenty from their older siblings but don’t give back much. But this study, published in Child Development confirms that younger siblings ensure their big brothers and sisters don’t grow into big assholes—no easy task.

“Although it’s assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socializing influences on younger siblings’ development, but not vice versa, we found that both younger and older siblings positively contributed to each other’s empathy over time,” study coauthor Marc Jambon, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Raising Brothers and Sisters

Prior sibling studies have disproportionately focused on the influence of older brothers and sisters, probably because their impact is most obvious. As one review of literature notes, studies have shown that older siblings influence everything from their younger siblings’ motor development to their risk of smoking later in life. And although isolated studies have tried to pin down effects that younger siblings have on their older siblings, the influence of baby brothers and sisters remains elusive. 

For this new study, Jambon and colleagues recruited a diverse group of 452 Canadian sibling pairs between the ages of 18 months and four years. At the start of the study, individual researchers assessed children’s baseline empathy levels by visiting the kids at home and then pretending to hurt themselves or break a cherished item. As the researchers communicated their distress, they recorded how the children reacted. Eighteen months later, the researchers returned to see how a year and a half of living with a younger sibling had affected these children.

Even after controlling for parenting style, demographic characteristics, and sibling relationship quality, they found small but statistically significant increases in empathy eighteen months later. “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,” Jambon said.

One odd exception—older sisters did not appear to experience increased empathy after 18 months living with their little brothers, specifically. The researchers aren’t sure why older sisters and younger brothers buck the trend, and recommend that future studies dive into the question of how complex sibling dynamics and different family structures may result in varying levels of empathy.