The Influence of Older Siblings

Little Brother Is Watching!

Younger children grow up in homes light years away from that in which their firstborn siblings were raised. They appear in fewer baby pictures, receive less parental attention and experience the added chaos that comes with being part of a larger family. Often, too, they are exposed to the interests and activities of teenagers while they themselves are still in elementary school or even preschool.

"That's a baby show, Stephen," 8-year-old Matt says, as he wrestles the remote away from his little brother and takes control of the TV.

Kathleen Pisano, the boys' mother, sighs. "Stephen's the youngest of four boys. He never got to watch Sesame Street or any of those gentle children's shows. He just watched what his older brothers watched."

10 Good Things About Having an Older Sibling

Straight from the mouths of babes, here’s 10 positive things about having an older brother or sister:

  1. “My brother lets me use his iPod.”

  2. “My sister told me how to get along with my teacher.”

  3. “When my brother drives me to soccer practice, I feel cool.”

  4. “My sister and I bake cookies together!”

  5. “My brother plays catch with me. My dad is always too busy.”

  6. “I went to the same camp as my brother and sister, so I didn’t get homesick.”

  7. “My brother helps me with my math homework.”

  8. “I watch what my big sister does, and then I learn what not to do.”

  9. “My older brother gets yelled at more than me!”

  10. “Even though we sometimes fight, I would never want to be an only child.”

– Carol Band

Pisano knows this first hand. "When Stephen went to kindergarten, I told the teacher not to be surprised if he talked about sex, since my middle-schooler was studying reproduction in health class and it was a favorite topic at our dinner table."

Should parents and teachers be worried about the effect that older children and their older interests have on young siblings?

"Parents worry that older children will 'corrupt' the younger ones, but generally those fears are overblown," says psychologist Anthony Wolf, a Springfield, Mass.-based author of numerous parenting books and a frequent lecturer. "Generally, a child's individual personality will determine his or her behavior more than anything that the older siblings are doing."

Parenting author and educator Nancy Samalin, founder and director of the New York-based Parent Guidance Workshops, notes that older siblings may not be imparting as much influence on younger family members as their parents fear. "A little brother or sister usually isn't an older child's favorite audience. Plus, there's the tattletale factor. The older one knows that the younger child would like nothing better than to be able to holler, 'Janie said she drank beer last night!'" and get their sibling in trouble."

Still, both Wolf and Samalin acknowledge that parents understandably want to protect their younger child's innocence. "They worry that undesirable adolescent behavior - language, dress and attitude - will be passed on to the younger sibling. If Jason's listening to heavy metal music at 10, what on earth will he be doing when he's 16?" Wolf says.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents who are worried about inappropriate behavior and attitudes trickling down from an older sibling to a younger child can consider doing the following:

  • Determine acceptable behavior for your whole family. Music with offensive lyrics, swearing, underage alcohol consumption and other risky behaviors are issues that parents should be concerned about not only for their youngest children, but for their teens as well.
    "It's the parents' job to reaffirm the values of the family and to say, 'That CD is offensive to me and I don't want you to play it in the house,'" says Wolf.

  • Remember that with age, comes privileges and responsibilities. It's OK for parents to treat their individual children differently, especially where age differences are concerned. A 15-year-old honor student has earned the right to wear lip gloss and stay out until 10:30 p.m. on a weekend. Her 10-year-old sister has not. There are privileges and age-appropriate behaviors that will come to the younger sibling in time and it's the parents' job to reinforce this: "I don't like the short skirts that Claire wears to school, but she's 17 and buys all her own clothes. When you're 17 and have an after-school job, you can buy your own clothes, too."

     Don't be too quick to blame the older sibling if your younger child is using foul language or talking about subjects that seem beyond his or her understanding.

    "There's lots of stuff out there in the world," says Samalin, referring to the influence of the media, peers and daily life itself. The younger child's behavior may be influenced by those factors more than the older sibling.

  • When a child is expressing interest in something that is not age-appropriate, look at it as an opportunity to exert some influence, Wolf advises. "It can be a very positive experience," he says. "Ask them why they like that music, if they know what the lyrics mean, and do they understand what message the songs are promoting."

    "Listen without lecturing," adds Samalin. "Ask your child, 'What do you think that word means?' You want your children to be able to come to you with their questions. If you answer them simply and openly, you'll set the tone for a good relationship in the future."

  • Remember that children look to their parents for the facts; they value your knowledge and opinions. It's far better for children to hear about "the facts of life" from their parents than to hear about it on a school playground, Wolf notes. Besides, he says, you can take some solace in knowing that young children only retain what they are really interested in and what they need to know at that moment. Often, they will completely forget conversations about sensitive topics that simply didn't interest them.

Overall, a parent's best defense is a good offense. "We can't completely shelter our children or protect them," says Samalin. "In the meantime, control what you can by monitoring what they watch on TV, getting to know their friends, limiting their time online and communicating your own values."

Big Brother/Big Sister Benefits

Although having an older sibling in the house can provide younger children with a premature peek into the future, "it's not necessarily bad," Wolf says. "Younger children almost always look up to their older siblings. And that's usually good."

Research has shown that older brothers and sisters can model bad behavior, but they can also protect their younger siblings and provide a positive influence that helps to prevent risky behavior.

Sharon Grossman took advantage of this with her own children. "When I found out that my teenage daughter was experimenting with cigarettes, I knew that the best person to talk with her about it would be her older brother," Grossman says. "She'll listen to him. So when he said 'How could you be so stupid?' it probably made a bigger impression than anything that I could say to her."

Meanwhile, older siblings can learn empathy and gain confidence from the younger members of the family. Teaching younger siblings how to throw a baseball, helping them with homework or talking to them about school are empowering for an older child and provide invaluable experience for the younger one. And older brothers and sisters can ease younger siblings through the rocky transitions of childhood and adolescence simply by being there first.

"By the time my third child went to school, he already knew the names of all the teachers, had heard stories about what went on during the day, knew kids in the older grades and felt very comfortable joining the world that his brothers had already been a part of," says Pisano. "On his first day, the teacher took one look at him and said, 'You must be one of the Pisano boys.' For him, every transition has been easier."

Carol Band is a frequent contributor to United Parenting Publications and a mother of three.