Parents of singletons like myself often wonder what the world would look like if a sibling were to appear, and how such a relationship might mold a child's future. (Beyond wrestling for each other's toys.) It's pretty easy to think about when they're little, but how having siblings affects your kids later in life may surprise you. Romper spoke with experts and it turns out, siblings play a powerful role in a child's future relationships.
"Growing up with a sibling usually forces a child to learn how to cooperate, get along with others, and resolve conflicts amicably at an early age," writes Maureen Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids and child therapist, in an email to Romper. Siblings are also companions and advocates for each other. As Healy notes, experiencing a close bond in childhood conveys positive messages about the world at large, including: "You are not alone, and we are in this together."
Dr. Tovah P. Klein, PhD, author of How Toddlers Thrive and an Associate Professor of Psychology at Barnard College sees sibling relationships resonate in many ways. She describes the parent-child relationships as vertical, while the sibling relationships are essentially horizontal. "And who else are we on a horizontal level with? Our spouses." Though she hasn't seen much research on this yet, she believes sibling relationships influence how couples interact. "We do learn conflict resolution with siblings. We learn how to ride the ups and downs." Klein also notes that sibling relationships affect adult parenting later, especially if one child was favored over another.
Healy agrees that the effects of unequal treatment linger: "Honestly, I see one of the biggest impacts of who we become later in life depends on how parents treat the different siblings — for example, is there a favorite child? . . . Or do they treat everyone equally?"
In her practice, Klein finds that parents are often dismayed by how much siblings fight. She wants parents to know, however, that these aren't playground brawls. If the family is healthy and love is a given, siblings feel safe enough in the context of love to express their "full range of emotions" (perhaps more exuberantly than parents would wish). She emphasizes that fighting is normal. Through a cycle of conflict and resolution, siblings "learn they can count on each other, and that you can trust people in a relationship, even though it's not always smooth."
So what about only children? Should parents worry that their "onlies" are deprived of crucial relationship skills? According to Klein, socialization isn't restricted to the family. While parents of only children should be careful not to hover, or weigh a child down with the burden of too many great expectations, "Loving nurturance, and giving children space to grow on their own, is true for every family, whether they have one child or five."
There's no doubt that siblings relationships can lay the scaffolding for relationships down the road. But so do parenting, friendships, and school experiences. Indeed, families of all shapes and sizes can raise happy, resilient adults. "There's lots of ingredients that go into making a person," says Klein. Of those ingredients, a sibling is only one. "An important one," she laughs, "But only one."