Articles in various newspapers last autumn announced that recent research has suggested that only children are happier than those with siblings. Gundi Knies, from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, analysed the ‘Understanding Society’ data and concluded that the findings indicated ‘the fewer siblings children have, the happier they are.’ However it became clear from the rest of the article that in many cases this was based on families with large numbers of sibling children and families where a great deal of bullying took place.
Can sibling relationships be beneficial or detrimental to the children concerned? Research in this area suggests that siblings are an important source for learning social and emotional skills. Socialization is seen to occur largely in the home through interaction with parents and siblings. Acceptable social roles are learned along with acceptable actions within those social roles. Sibling research indicates that parents’ management of their children’s disputes and quarrels helps to develop good social attitudes and helps them interact in socially acceptable ways to one another. Parents daily intervene in a variety of ways with their children, for example in disputes, and enforcing rules for each child’s treatment of one another. They also address issues that children raise, for example on sharing and fairness, and take positions on those issues. This interaction is watched by siblings and this can provide a great deal of valuable social learning if it is appropriate; but if not it models dysfunctional interaction. Similarly when parents do not intervene, older siblings are likely to dominate and be hostile to their younger siblings. Again this both models and promotes a dysfunctional family dynamic. So if we assume that parents are ideally a positive influence rather than negative – what else has sibling research shown?
Firstly, that a mother’s discussions with siblings of preschool age, concerning their younger siblings’ needs and feelings, is associated with sibling care-giving and friendliness. This is positive modelling that encourages siblings to engage in friendlier and more sensitive interactions, learning how to listen to each other and empathising with their siblings’ distress. This also teaches them to engage in cooperative efforts to resolve disputes and gives them confidence to solve these disputes through direct action rather than through avoidance and anger.
Secondly, Sibling conflict combining self-interest, emotional arousal and a close relationship, is a powerful stimulus for the growth of a child’s social knowledge. In a sibling family, where there are repeated opportunities to see, alternative solutions considered, and problem-solving skills demonstrated, a useful source of social learning is provided.
Thirdly, Siblings in research studies have reported that their sibling relationships are important sources of emotional and practical support during times of stress and family transitions.
Fourthly we understand from neuroscience that social and emotional learning, from a child’s caregiver, influences brain development. It seems highly probable then, that the important emotional learning and development gained through sibling interaction also influences the development of the ‘social brain’ (orbitofrontal cortex). The development of the orbitofrontal cortex depends on relationships with other people, initially parents but subsequently interaction with others. Important emotional learning is a consequence of sibling interaction. Without siblings the child needs opportunities to learn social skills outside the home but this is usually considered a less safe environment in which to learn. This can mean that in certain areas only children are less likely to develop the skills of managing difficult emotions, especially anger, envy and jealousy, and dealing proactively with conflict.
We know that the psychosocial skills attained through sibling interactions are later used throughout life in a wide variety of other social relationships including friendships and partners. Therefore the family that includes siblings helps each child to develop perspective and other useful social skills. This combined with the help and support siblings can offer, in times of transition, remains unavailable to the only-child. This does not mean the only-child cannot develop them but I would argue that siblings do play a significant role in psychosocial development.
Finally bullying is mentioned in the article stating only children are happier than sibling children but this appears to be confused with sibling rivalry. Frank Sulloway in “Born to Rebel” describes, that sibling rivalry has an evolutionary place to encourage each sibling to find a place for itself in the family and society. Rivalry is normal and gives opportunities for both emotional and social development, whilst bullying is counter productive and often a result of poor communication and social skills resulting from poor or no parental attention. Unfortunately many only children are bullied when they go to school, which is a result of their lack of opportunities to have experience of peer interaction through play. Some only children can be so over-protected, or treated as a ‘little adult’, interacting mostly with other adults (parents’ or friends of parents’) that they have had few chances to discover their ‘free child’ and can appear precocious, over-controlled, over-confident and self-opinionated. One can easily see how this ends up fitting the only child stereotype.