“No psychologist is needed to point out the passion, fury and jealousy that is expressed so uninhibitedly by siblings”

Approximately 80% of British people have a sibling or siblings, and they always seem to cause each other trouble. Anyone with siblings will know all about the fighting; stealing each others’ toys and colouring books; kicking each other under the dinner table and quarrelling horribly in the back of the car on long trips. Think of Cain and Abel – they must have really irritated one another.

And yet the sibling relationship is one of the most unique and intense relationships that any of us will ever experience due physical proximity and daily interactions during the younger years; the (normally) shared genetic and social heritage; the shared history of experiences within a family context – and it is one of the longest relationships that most people will have in their entire lives, be it harmonious or hellish. Siblings undoubtedly profoundly affect each other’s social and educational perceptions through a number of factors that will be explored in this essay.

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K�nig (1970) stated that “the temperament and the character of a person are determined by his family constellation” and conducted several studies on birth order (also known as ordinal position). He describes the first-born as adult orientated, conscientious and sensitive, possessing a desire to “conquer the world”. In contrast, the second-born is typically difficult to motivate into work and lacks perseverance, either through their hopelessly placid and laid-back attitude, or their stubbornness and rebelliousness. The synopsis of the first- and second-born children clearly demonstrates an educational link: motivation and conscientiousness, and social implications here are going to be affected. How?

The first-born is instantly expected to adopt a ‘leading’ role. At first, this is among their siblings. K�nig asserts that first-borns often claim responsibility for occurrences and are often “filled with bitterness” when not enough respect is given to their achievements. When their younger brother or sister is born, they frequently become withdrawn, overly demanding and unusually upset1 Clearly, then, here is the first indication of a child’s social understanding being altered due to the arrival and existence of their sibling.

The child is forced to reconsider their position and must reassess their own self-categorisation. (Through the sensory-motor stage, as proposed by Piaget, children acquire what is known as ‘person permanence’2 and branching out from this, children develop the ability to socially categorise other people according to social outlines and dimensions. These include physical appearance (height, hair colour, facial features); movement, voice and eventually the person’s role in the child’s life (parent; friend; stranger).) Freud (1948) expressed “the opinion that a child can form a just estimate of the set-back he has to expect at the hands of a little stranger.”

A stranger? Defined as: “foreigner, person in a country or town or in company that he does not belong to, unknown to oneself or another; person entirely unaccustomed to some feeling or practice or experience”. If this person with whom the child is to live and interact with is a stranger, then social understanding must immediately come into play from all sides. Obviously, attention becomes split between the new baby and the first child. However, it was observed that often the mother spends more time playing with the first-born than previously when she is not attending the baby. The presence of a sibling provides a focus of discussion of another person between the first-born and others. (It has been proven1 that discussing the baby as a person with likes, interests and needs promotes a more harmonious sibling relationship in the future.)

This arrival also necessitates a more complex cognitive development on behalf of the first-born, and becomes more naturally instinctual in the second-born, which has implications in their social interaction: understanding their sibling. Basic comprehension is demonstrated (by the first-born) through size – big and small; big and baby – and through gender, especially if the baby is of the opposite sex. Older children displayed the ability to make inferences about their sibling’s emotional state, leading to the ability to act with sympathy or hostility as deemed appropriate.

BRUCE S (baby playing with balloon): He going to pop it in a minute. And he’ll cry. And he’ll be frightened of me too. I like the pop.

This example from Dunn’s study illustrates the capacity even very young children have to understand others, and the intricate cognitive processes that develop through this new interaction. Conversely, this social competency exists in the younger sibling sooner than in the older. A 14-month-old boy took his 2-year-old sister’s doll from her in order to make her cry as a ‘punishment’ for her not doing his bidding – or perhaps it was a persuasive device.

This astonishingly complex ability to assimilate the perspective of their sibling is a key development in children, primarily as a result of having a brother or sister. It can be related to a ‘theory of mind’, as proposed by some researchers: the idea that children can mind-read their sibling’s feelings and thoughts. How does it have implications for teaching?

Clearly, it is important for educators to understand the high level of social comprehension of children for their peers when considering learning strategies, such as social learning (Vygotsky) and general classroom management. With a thorough understanding of how birth order and the subsequent contact between children as siblings, teachers may be better aware of how to manage a class of individuals.

Another indication of social awareness in young children comes from the idea of ‘social referencing’3, defined as “a process characterized by the use of one’s own perception of other persons’ interpretation of this situation to form one’s own understanding of the situation”. This occurs when the infant is uncertain of a situation and requires guidance on response from – normally – their caregiver; however children are also seen to develop an equal dependence on their sibling, regardless of ordinal position. For example, when they encounter someone or something unfamiliar, the infant takes some time to observe their chosen ‘guider’ and assess their emotional expression before deciding on how to themselves react in this new circumstance[I1].

Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg assert, based on their research of “a number of studies”, that the eldest child remains subjected to higher expectations from the parents. As a result, the eldest are clearer and more articulated in speech at age 6 than their younger counterpart(s).

First-borns require less encouragement than second-borns. Working to prove this theory, a “marble hole game” was conducted4 with first- and second-born children. It involved the children sorting 300 marbles into two holes according to the marbles’ colour. When given no encouragement, it was discovered that the older children played for a longer period of time than when they were encouraged; the opposite was found to be true for the younger. The implications here for teaching are self-evident: behavioural theories based on a reward and encouragement scheme may not always hold true. (Equally, the marble experiment may be criticised on the grounds of subjects being placed in a ‘strange situation’, that is an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar persons.)

This calls into question teacher involvement in a classroom and illustrates the need to appreciate different encouragement and reward techniques. As has already been discussed, the first-born needs little encouragement to work and may become bitter at any lack of appraisal for their achievements; the second-born requires more encouragement but does not react in the same way to neither punishment nor reward, in that they are more passive and laid-back. Thus it is important for an educator to appreciate the required positive differential treatment for siblings, often according to their ordinal position, as well as the varying impacts a merit scheme may have on their students. (Naturally, it is also essential to avoid generalisation on birth order in respect to personality types!)

From the conclusions already drawn on how siblings assist each other in becoming more socially competent (in terms of understanding others and heightened interaction; rivalry and sharing as well as prosocial behaviour and role modelling) and helping each other to learn, and the effects of having a sibling in a school environment – where does this leave the remaining 20% of Britain’s population, who fall under the category of an only child? Are they socially and educationally defunct as a result of this lack of kin companionship? Where do they learn the skills that siblings learn from each other, and how do the social and educational outcomes differ, and why?

Without a close-age additional role model for them to follow, only children have no more than the adult parental model, and have been found to be “both more dependent and more achieving… [and] the most self-esteeming”5. They have no sibling of whom to be jealous or with whom they must compete: they have all of their parents’ attention – often leading to the stereotype of ‘spoiled brat’. The Independent on Sunday (1992) stated that “children with no siblings can be spoilt prima donnas, but they are often high achievers”.

The claim is that only children are often cleverer than their peers who have one or more siblings. Only children score higher on IQ tests than children from larger families and have been observed as being more aware of the world around them. They are higher achievers regardless of social status and past research indicates that the smaller the family size, the higher the children’s intellectual ability. Is this due to more concentrated parental attention? Fewer children means that parents have more time and money to spend on their child, leading to better social, economic and educational opportunities.

However, more recent studies into single-child families show a levelling of intellectual ability between only children and those who have one sibling: while only children’s reading capability scores are almost always higher than their peers’, these children with one sibling normally score higher than those without any siblings on mathematics tests. It appears that while “the smaller the family size, the higher the intellectual ability of the children”6 holds true for most cases, it ends with the smallest family size of all: the single child. Clearly their ability levels are connected to the high adult input: greater academic attentiveness on the behalf of the only child’s parents renders them better intellectually capable than a child who has, say, four siblings, and whose parents would have feasibly less time to devote to each child in terms of helping them with reading or homework.

Researchers Zajonc and Marcus suggest the theory of peer tutoring (i.e. Vygotsky’s social learning theory). They hypothesise that “the experience of helping and teaching a younger sibling benefits the intellectual development of the older child”. This may also help to explain the typical lack of motivation in the second-born child, discussed earlier in this essay. However, Zajonc and Marcus’s theory has come under severe criticism, despite its widely accepted status. If the sibling tutoring concept were true, then all first-born children would be significantly more intelligent, and a number of studies7 have disproved this.

What about the only child’s social development and perceptions? For them, there is no additional person, close to their own age, who is constant in physical proximity in the home, offering further development of social referencing and the capacity for empathy and appropriate behaviour toward others, which is normally cultivated by observing the siblings’ and their parents’ mutual interactions – other than the only child’s parent(s), of course. One might expect only children to be maladjusted in terms of sharing social experiences with, say, marital partners, having had no experience of sharing in the home before, other than with their doting parents. However, Laybourn describes only children “as generous, cooperative, extroverted, sociable and popular as sibling children are.” And yet when asked to rate themselves in terms of sociability, only children often regard themselves as having difficulties in peer interaction, while their classmates see them as having fewer problems than they apparently believe they do have.

Nevertheless, it has been suggested that while siblings aid each other socially, they do not necessarily guarantee supremacy in the social arena when it comes to making friends, getting along with colleagues or finding a martial partner. Many developmental psychologists separate the two fields of interaction, keeping sibling/family relationships divided from those with peers, marital partners and colleagues8. One quantative study revealed that only children fare better in achievement motivation and self-esteem than those with siblings. (I personally query whether this is because of the lack of close-age rivalry at home from siblings, and the earlier highlighted aspect of second-born children having typically low achievement motivation.)

How does all of this relate to my own experience as a learner? I have a brother, younger by four years. It is true that while I was always described as “a hard worker with great potential”9, my brother’s school reports generally described him as having great ‘natural’ intelligence, but little inclination to push himself further. He is ridiculously laid-back (!!) but possesses a great motivation to discover more about music, and practises his guitar almost constantly. He gets embarrassed when his achievements are publicly recognised, whereas I, quite frankly, crave the limelight in terms of success acknowledgement.

Unfortunately for him, whenever we had the same teachers (particularly in secondary school), they appeared to have preconceived expectations of his motivation and ability, based on their experiences teaching me: but while little encouragement and much praise worked with me, they had negative effects on my brother. I know he is not the only one who has suffered educationally as a result of teachers holding the same expectations for the younger sibling as the elder; many of my friends with older siblings experienced the same treatment.

It is partly for this reason that I believe it is important for teachers to recognise the effects of differing “family constellations”. In terms of achievement, I have found it true that only children are normally excellent in reading comprehension and their knowledge of words (one of my friends has a nickname along the lines of ‘Walking Thesaurus’) and yet similar ability in most other subjects. My boyfriend comes from a large family where, for most of his childhood, he was the youngest sibling. His eldest sister carried onto tertiary education: due to lack of motivation, he gave up on schooling after receiving his NVQ. His family then expanded by two younger sisters, who – perhaps as a result of the “large family, low academic ability” hypothesis – find themselves placed in ‘bottom sets’ for subjects and struggle with work.

Do these personal experiences prove the psychologists’ theories and researchers’ studies stated throughout this essay? They certainly seem to follow through, but in regard to individuals in a classroom context, it can certainly be dangerous to generalise. There are so many different theories and studies that prove them that coming to a solid conclusion on just how siblings effect each other’s social development and success in school and work is a constant debate. Nevertheless, I believe it worthwhile for educators to make themselves aware, to some extent, of the affects that a child’s family background may have on them, and how best to deal with these affects in order to achieve effective motivation and classroom management strategies; to aid their social development and of course their academic successes.

1 Dunn and Kendrick, “Siblings” (1982)

2 that is, a person does not cease to exist once they disappear from view.

3 Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg (1970) and Feinman (1982)

4 Gilmore and Zigler (1964)

5 Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg (1970)

6 Laybourn (1994)

7 according to Ann Laybourn’s book, “The Only Child” (1994)

8 Polit and Falbo (1987)

9 taken from my Primary 6 school report, 1994

[I1]Leading onto: Conformity and dependency

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