Siblings of Influence

Bridget O’Brien
May 01, 2000

rowing up, I saw my sister as the authority on just about every thing. Seven years older, she had it all figured out: sports, fashion, friends, boys, school. Sometimes, when I was cool enough to hang out with her, she practiced make-up on me.

Look up, my sister directed. I sat patiently on the bathroom countertop, obediently looking up. Concentrating hard, she drew a thick brown line underneath my bottom eyelid. Okay, now close it, she commanded. I closed my eyes and tried to keep very still. She added another fat line on the top lid. Aren't there any cute boys in your class?

sisters pose for photo

Now the tiny diamond-shaped foam tip of the eye-shadow wand slid across my eye-lid. More in the crease. Another shade beneath the brow. Well?

I don't know, I answered sheepishly. Can I open my eyes?

What do you mean you don't know? I opened my eyes to see her coming at me with a spiral-tipped stick covered in black goop. Sit very still, she said. Don't move and don't blink.

Gingie, what's that? I asked, glad to change the subject. I had just started thinking boys were maybe less than disgusting. But cute?

Mascara. Don't move. I focused all my effort on keeping my eyelids open and still. The goop felt wet, and then my eyelashes stiffened. I jerked back my head, surprised at this new sensation, and started to blink. No, no. You can't blink yet, she grumbled, her face scrunched up in irritation. It's all over your face now, she scolded, spitting on a tissue to wipe it off.

After doing the other eye, we were ready for blush—really ready. Finally she had her chance to cure my "paleness," to give me color.

Open your mouth like this, she demonstrated, as if saying "HO! HO! HO!" I eagerly obliged, convinced I needed color too, but more importantly to keep her distracted from the boy subject. Wielding a fluffy makeup brush in her right hand, she painted my cheeks with fuchsia powder.

Now, open your mouth like this, she yawned. Quite pleased with herself so far, she completed her masterpiece. With lip liner, she etched a perfect outline around the edges of my lips, as carefully as she'd done with my eyes, and then filled in the lines with lipstick, just as I colored in unicorns in my coloring books.

You're beautiful! she exclaimed as we strutted down to the kitchen for our parents' admiration. Impressed, they brought out the camera and praised us both, she for her artistry and me for my beauty. We smiled delightedly at each other for the camera.

guess I always knew my sister affected who I am, but I never took the time to think about how or why she wielded such influence. It was obvious: She was my sister. She had always been in my life.

But how did my sister influence me differently than your sister influenced you? Does it matter that she was a girl and not a boy, and that I was too? What would it have been like if I had been born first?

"Siblings influence each other's development in very important ways," says Susan McHale, a professor of human development at Penn State. "They're a significant part of family life during childhood. But surprisingly, researchers have paid very little attention to sibling relationships."

brothers wearing matching overalls pose for photo

McHale hops up from her chair and goes to the loaded bookshelf just outside her office. From rows and rows of books, their titles ranging from in-depth family studies to ones like Born to Rebel, she pulls the last book of the four-volume Handbook of Child Psychology, the definitive guide to the study of child development. Settling back into her chair, she flips to the index and scans it intently. Then, pushing the thick volume toward me, she points to the pages and pages listing the various influences on child development, from parents to peers to pre-school. Only 16 of some 5,000 pages mention siblings.

McHale won the Evan G. and Helen G. Pattishall Outstanding Research Achievement Award from the College of Human Health and Development in 1998 for her studies of children's family relationships. Over the past 15 years, she and colleague Ann Crouter have placed siblings at the center of their research. "Demographic trends have made it easier to study siblings," McHale acknowledges. "The move toward smaller family size means that most families now have only two or three children, which cuts down on the sibling permutations you have to study." With Crouter, McHale has studied such issues as family experience when both parents are employed, the daily activities of children with disabled and non-disabled siblings, and most recently, gender role socialization and gender development in childhood and adolescence.

In 1995, McHale and Crouter began a set of studies that followed 400 families as the children developed during middle childhood and adolescence. Undergraduate student volunteers did 13,200 group and individual interviews in the families' homes and over the phone, while graduate students led interview teams and did data analysis and report writing. For three years the team studied mothers, fathers, and two siblings, two to three years apart in age, from each family. By the end of each study, the younger sibling was about the age the older sibling had been at the beginning. "We can compare siblings when they are at about the same age, at different points in time, and also compare them at the same time, when they are different ages," says McHale. The results, she adds, "have been eye-opening."

Siblings influence each other in such areas as identity development, relationships with others (parents and friends), and degree of sex-typing, that is, how much girls and boys express stereotypically male or female qualities. "Two children experience the same family differently," McHale says, "not only because they have different experiences but because they interpret shared circumstances differently as well."

iblings wield influence both directly and indirectly. "Indirectly," McHale says, "siblings can influence one another by comparing ways their parents treat them. They see what kinds of privileges, discipline, attention, and time their mothers and fathers dedicate to them relative to their sisters and brothers." My own sister, for instance, whined endlessly when I was allowed to have a television at age nine. Why does she get a TV in her bedroom? she moaned.

I was way older than that before I could. To me, it seemed she had the most privileges. I was always "too little" to stay up late or watch "big kid movies" with her friends.

sisters kiss by the fireplace

"Children can feel jealous if they see their sibling getting privileged treatment," McHale explains. "On the other hand, if they see their sibling getting more discipline they might begin to develop a sense that they are the 'good kid' in the family. If they see their sibling getting more attention for sports or academic accomplishments they might believe themselves to be the 'unathletic' or 'dumb' kid—even when they are actually as good as other kids their own age in these arenas." A girl who sees her brother absolved from housework may learn that these chores are part of being a girl. "Children learn who they are not only by how they're treated, but also by how they see others being treated."

cHale and Crouter learned that siblings develop in different ways when they adopt or get assigned a certain niche within the family. A child's family niche helps answer the "Who am I?" question; it defines a child's identity. "The family niches we choose or are given have implications for how we spend our time, the friends we choose, and even our career choices. Many researchers argue that first-borns usually get first dibs on choosing a family niche," McHale adds. A younger child, then, may engage in "niche picking," choosing territory that isn't already claimed to define how he or she is unique. If an older child excels at academics, the younger one may turn to sports, even if both children have equal intelligence and potential. In this way, I focused on my schoolwork when my sister became a starter for the volleyball team. Even when I was old enough to try out for sports, my lack of ability in basketball became painfully apparent in the one season I played, and I didn't make it past first cuts for the volleyball team, despite my sister's lessons. I added music to academics to define my own niche, rather than struggle fruitlessly in hers. This process of choosing differences is called "sibling de-identification," and it may begin prior to puberty—before children realize they are doing it—as well as occurring consciously during adolescence.

"One theory is that children try to maximize resources in terms of time and attention from their parents. Children choose a sphere that is uniquely theirs," McHale says. This may allow children time with their parents when they don't have to compete for attention.

Developing individuality is not the only way brothers and sisters affect one another. "Siblings copy each other too," McHale says. "They interact, reinforce behavior, serve as models, and introduce each other to experiences. For example, older siblings can be a conduit to adolescent culture." Younger children frequently copy the way an older sibling talks or dresses (or, as in my case, they actually wear their sibling's old clothes). This copycat behavior, of course, is not always positive—it can lead to what McHale calls "delinquent activity and risky behavior."

two young sisters pose by birthday table

According to social learning theories, we are most likely to copy a person we perceive as powerful, as warm and loving—or as like us. If a sibling, especially an older one, possesses any of these three traits, he or she is likely to be influential. A powerful but hostile older sibling may not have the same level of influence.

"A sibling's friends also become accessible, offering a new set of experiences," says McHale. A younger child can gain familiarity with another age group or the opposite sex, just as I became used to teenagers while still in elementary school. Girls and boys generally segregate themselves during grade-school years, then start to interact more as they begin to date. Adolescents with a sibling of the opposite sex may be more comfortable with this transition.

How do your brothers and sisters influence how sex-typed you'll be? Males are stereotypically more "instrumental": more likely to describe themselves as competitive and adventurous. Females, in contrast, highlight "expressive" qualities, such as sensitivity, kindness, and social concern. "Having an older brother or sister can affect the development of gender identity and personality," McHale says. A boy with older sisters, for example, may be more likely to show traditionally "feminine" characteristics than a boy with older brothers. McHale and Crouter have found that greater sex-typed differences occur in families who value traditional gender roles, such as girls learning arts and crafts while boys play competitive sports. In less-traditional families, brothers and sisters may be more similar.

McHale's research raises some challenging policy issues. For example, "Do kids have the right to see siblings after divorce? It's not on policy makers' minds," she points out. Custody rights for parents are determined, but what if the children are separated? And what about adoption—should siblings be adopted together?

The idea may become significant as people recognize the tremendous influence siblings have on one another's development. You will probably outlive your parents, and you aren't likely to meet a mate until later in life. But a sibling is someone you have a life-long relationship with, even over great distances. This fact is especially true for sisters because women tend to live longer, and longevity is heritable. McHale smiles, "A sibling relationship is likely to be the longest lasting relationship you will have."

How would I be different if my sister was never part of my life?

When we talk about our growing-up experiences, both individual and shared, I have wondered if we were even part of the same family. Not only did we participate in different activities, but we remember the same events differently too. If I viewed our frequent moves as depressing and scary experiences, at least at first; she saw them as adventures, challenges—a chance to decorate a new bedroom.

As different as our memories might be, we were clearly a huge factor in each other's development. As an eight-year-old, I barged into her room in our house in Tennessee, planning to hang out with her. At 15, she had other plans. But I wouldn't budge. I planted myself on the end of her bed, determined to make her consider me her very best friend. She was equally resolute: She promptly dragged me by my arms into the hallway and closed the door.

Ignoring the stinging rub burn on my back, I jumped up, grabbed the knob, and started to push before she locked it. I yanked my socks off for more traction on the carpet. I pushed in. She pushed out. Once I managed to shove it open just enough to stick a foot in. Bad idea, I realized. Then I drove the hollow wooden door open a good five inches and lost it. She pushed back hard against no resistance. Slam! We'd broken the lock; she'd never be completely safe from my intrusions again.

She's stayed in Tennessee and now, with a husband, two kids, a dog, and a house, she is living a life quite different from my own college experience. But she finally invited me in; she began offering her guidance when I really needed it (like not just how to get into college, but how to survive it). Our influence on each other still ties us together, despite the physical distance that separates us. As I dial my sister's phone number, McHale's description resonates with clarity and comfort: "A sibling is a traveler who stays with you throughout life."

Susan M. McHale, Ph.D., is professor of human development in the College of Human Health and Development, 112 Henderson Bldg. South, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2663; Ann C. Crouter, Ph.D., is professor of human development, 112 Henderson South; 814-865-2647; The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded their research. Writer Bridget M. O'Brien is majoring in biology and writing at Juniata College. Photos courtesy of the family albums of Research/Penn State staff.

Last Updated May 01, 2000