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Can Younger Siblings Teach Older Kids Empathy?

According to New Research, Younger Kids Teach Older Siblings Empathy — but There's a Catch

It's no secret that your younger kiddos stand to learn a whole lot about the world from their older siblings, but according to a new study, your older children can learn something from the brothers and sisters who are born after them too. New research published in the journal Child Development suggests that younger kids can actually teach their older siblings a thing or two about empathy.

The study assessed 452 Canadian sibling pairs between the ages of 18 months and 4 years old. Researchers started by measuring the older kids' baseline empathy levels on their initial visit to the siblings' home by pretending to get hurt by hitting their knee or catching their finger in a briefcase, or by breaking a valuable possession. After explaining to each older child how upset they were about what happened, the study authors videotaped each child's reaction to the news and recorded it.

They returned to each household a year and a half later and made an interesting observation: "Both younger and older siblings' observed empathetic concern uniquely predicted relative increases in the other's empathy over an 18-month period."

Marc Jambon, a study leader and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, explained why the findings are so significant in a statement:

"Although it's assumed that older siblings and parents are the primary socialising 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. 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."

The study authors also examined whether or not gender and birth order played a role in how empathetic older children turned out to be and found that, yes, whether or not they are a boy or girl with a younger brother or sister matters. "The effects stayed the same for all children in the study with one exception: younger brothers didn't contribute to significant changes in older sisters' empathy."

Sheri Madigan, Canada Research Chair in determinants of child development and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary and study coauthor, hammered home how every family member's relationship with a child is important: "Our findings emphasize the importance of considering how all members of the family, not just parents and older siblings, contribute to children's development. The influence of younger siblings has been found during adolescence, but our study indicates that this process may begin much earlier than previously thought."

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