The New Science of Siblings

Your parents raised you. Your spouse lives with you. But it's your brothers and sisters who really shaped you. Surprising research reveals how

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From that research, scientists are gaining intriguing insights into the people we become as adults. Does the manager who runs a congenial office call on the peacemaking skills learned in the family playroom? Does the student struggling with a professor who plays favorites summon up the coping skills acquired from dealing with a sister who was Daddy's girl? Do husbands and wives benefit from the intergender negotiations they waged when their most important partners were their sisters and brothers? All that is under investigation. "Siblings have just been off the radar screen until now," says Conger. But today serious work is revealing exactly how our brothers and sisters influence us.

•Why childhood fights between siblings can be good

THE FIRST THING THAT STRIKES contemporary researchers when they study siblings is the sheer quantity of time the kids spend in one another's presence and the power this has to teach them social skills. By the time children are 11, they devote about 33% of their free time to their siblings--more time than they spend with friends, parents, teachers or even by themselves--according to a well-regarded Penn State University study published in 1996. Later research, published last year, found that even adolescents, who have usually begun going their own way, devote at least 10 hours a week to activities with their siblings--a lot when you consider that with school, sports, dates and sleep, there aren't a whole lot of free hours left. In Mexican-American homes, where broods are generally bigger, the figure tops 17 hours.

"In general," says psychologist Daniel Shaw of the University of Pittsburgh, "parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They're there every day." All that proximity breeds an awful lot of intimacy--and an awful lot of friction.

Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that, on average, sibs between 3 and 7 years old engage in some kind of conflict 3.5 times an hour. Kids in the 2-to-4 age group top out at 6.3--or more than one clash every 10 minutes, according to a Canadian study. "Getting along with a sister or brother," Kramer says dryly, "can be a frustrating experience."

But as much as all the fighting can set parents' hair on end, there's a lot of learning going on too, specifically about how conflicts, once begun, can be settled. Shaw and his colleagues conducted a years-long study in which they visited the homes of 90 2-year-old children who had at least one sibling, observing the target kids' innate temperaments and their parents' discipline styles. The researchers returned when the children were 5 and observed them again, this time in a structured play session with one close-in-age sib. The pairs were shown three toys but given only one to play with. They were told they could move onto the next one only when both agreed it was time to switch and further agreed which toy they wanted next.

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