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Birth Order and Siblings Relationships

The term ‘birth order’ is used to analyze the role of a person according to his/ her age among his siblings. Therefore it is used to determine the relationship of siblings who not only differ in age but also possess different behaviors and habits. Birth order affects one sibling’s attitude towards another psychologically. It is the birth order of the child that makes him feel special among his siblings and parents. This paper would highlight how the relationships of siblings differ from one another and under what circumstances.

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Sibling relationships keep on changing as children move through different developmental periods. They are not influenced by any social vacuum, but they are embedded within the context of relationships with other family members and peers. These ecological realities make it difficult to understand fully the changing nature of sibling relationships without simultaneously considering developmental changes in other relationships.

Children’s relationships with their siblings are an important source of influence in their lives, even more than those that get along with them and with their surroundings in the form of their parents, teachers, and friends. Siblings can serve as playmates, companions, agents of socialization, advocates with the peer group, and allies in dealing with parents, as well as models of both positive and negative behavior. As siblings compare themselves with one another, they develop ideas about their abilities and worth (Tesser, 1980). Their behavior toward one another is associated with aspects of their social and cognitive development, personalities, and personal adjustment (McHale & Gamble, 1987). Feelings that siblings develop toward one another in childhood have been found to persist into their adult lives. The sibling relationship, therefore, plays a vital role in their social and cognitive development. Even sometimes, elder siblings can construct the morals of their younger ones.

Confluence Model

According to a confluence theory, discussed by Steelman et al (2002), “Firstborn children are more advantaged than other siblings because they enjoy an uninterrupted sophisticated environment with their parents, however the advantage varies according to the age spacing”.(Steelman et al, 2002) However if this is the case, the teaching function is embedded in the model as a younger sibling expects his elder brother or sister to be his tutor. Unintentionally the sibling learns from his elder peers.

Critics have been harsh on the confluence model and raise the issue throughout a child where he enjoys an uninterrupted environment with his parents. On the birth of a younger brother or sister, children often feel jealousy as they think their parents’ love has been shared.

Various child development professionals and experienced parents have noted that children growing up within the same family are remarkably different in their personalities and behavior than those who are not living with their families. These differences, to some extent, can be attributed to environmental influences that the children do not share, but most children are influenced by their siblings. Researchers have identified such factors as siblings’ experiences with each other, their relationships with peers and teachers, and disparate life events as contributors to their personality differences (Dunn & Stocker, 1989).

Relationship Structure

Children’s relationships with siblings and peers can be described in terms of four aspects of structural characteristics biosocial structure, social-role structure, systemic structure, and socioemotional structure. (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985)

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Biosocial structure

The biosocial structure includes birth order, age-spacing between siblings, and child-sibling relationships. These characteristics are biologically linked and uphold important structural features of peer relationships; In fact, it is through the biosocial structure that children exercise a pervasive influence on peer relationships. For example, children show a clear preference to interact with same-sex peers. This preference is initiated at a very young age and develops through middle childhood. In one longitudinal study, Maccoby (1990) discovered that preschoolers spent thrice the time playing with same-sex peers as they did with opposite-sex peers. Maccoby also revealed through his research that by the time the children were 6½ they spent 11 times as much time with same-sex peers as with opposite-sex peers. (Maccoby, 1990)

Social-Role Structure

The social role enables siblings to occupy varying characters either intentionally or unintentionally. Intentional roles include friends, competitors, caregivers, teachers, etc, each of which is accompanied by different norms for behavior whereas unintentional roles may involve negative attributes or role models like the involvement of parents. Negative roles are seen in birth order age differences where sibling jealousy occurs. Therefore it is the responsibility of the parents to maintain their children’s development through a positive role by giving equal love and attention to all children.

Similarly, siblings can enact a variety of roles, including playmate, best friend, and competitor. Anyone relationship can comprise multiple roles, with peers slipping in and out of different roles depending on the context and flow of interaction. Therefore the parents need to shape the characters of their children in such a way that they opt for positive roles only.

Brody et al (1985) discovered some unique developmental changes in the social-role structure of sibling relationships that interacted and influenced the bio-social structure. In a study of preschool-aged and school-aged sibling pairs, they found that older school-aged female siblings took on a teacher role more often than any other sibling (Brody et al, 1985). Similarly, it was found that a twin pair sitting in the same class exercise identical habits and characteristics.

Systemic Structure

Systemic structure refers to the criteria in which emotional involvement and attachment are embedded. The systemic structure of sibling relationships involves the overall configuration of the sibship group in which two siblings or peers enjoy the same interests and habits, not because they simply imitate each other but due to the reason they have a greater influence on each other’s personality. It is through these conditions that we say children learn from each other. Many children have relationships with two or more siblings, with some holding the position of eldest, others holding the position of youngest, and still, others holding the middle position where they simultaneously act as a younger and older sibling.

The nature of interactions can vary depending on whether interactions occur in dyads, triads, or larger systems. Just as the father’s presence affects a mother’s interaction with her child, the presence of three versus two siblings is likely to influence the quality of sibling interactions. Corter, Abramovitch, and Pepler (1983) in a study of preschool-aged sibling pairs found that the presence of the mother reduced the overall level of sibling interaction and that interactions between siblings tended to be less antagonistic and more positive if the mother was absent. (Corter et al, 1983)

Socio-emotional Structure

The socio-emotional qualities of a child are his behavioral interdependencies in his relationships with his peers and siblings. It refers to the fulfillment of the needs of the children for which they maintain such relationships.

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Birth Order Differences

Research suggests that there are always differences in the ways parents treat their children. These differences can also be a part of the above-mentioned structures and have been documented in many ways. Children ranging in age from 5 years to adolescence have reported that their parents treat them differently from their siblings. For example, children under 5 complained that their parents are more caring towards their elders, for they discuss most of their matters with them. Such children fall under the category of ‘age difference’ in their peers and siblings.

Observational studies, indicating that mothers direct different rates of affectionate, controlling, and responsive behavior toward their children, support their perceptions. Dunn and her colleagues found mothers treat their children differently based on the children’s age differences, on such dimensions as affection, control, play behavior, and disciplinary approaches. Other researchers have found mothers to be more responsive, verbal, controlling, and emotionally expressive with their younger children than with their older children (Brody et al., 1987).

Relationship concerning Educational attainment

Relationships between acquiring education and birth order are what we refer to as ‘family resources’ (Hertwig, Davis, & Sulloway, 2002). This is so because family limited resources are influenced by increasing family size. That means that proper education and bringing up of children are those factors that are dependant upon its resources. Firstborns utilize the utmost opportunity to acquire education and nourishment as they have no competitors. Here competitors refer to other siblings because lack of resources increases competition among children. Later-born children are therefore those who acquire the least of all resources.

It can also be explained according to the ‘family niche’ explanation, in which successive siblings are more like competitors to each other to differentiate themselves from other siblings in an attempt to maximize outcomes and create a unique identity within the family (Feinberg et al., 2003). In this context, if older siblings are education-oriented, then younger siblings would be more likely to favor educational activities.

Birth order possesses a deep profound effect on family size due to the reason that it sets the upper limit of the child’s birth order like later-born kids are mostly from larger families. This means that the relationship between birth order and education affects the relationship between family size and education. (Fergusson et al, 2006)


Brody G. H., Stoneman Z., & Burke M. (1987) “Child temperaments, maternal differential behavior, and sibling relationships” In: Developmental Psychology, 23, 354-362.

Corter C., Abramovitch R., & Pepler D. J. (1983) “The role of the mother in sibling interaction” In: Child Development, 54, 1599-1605.

Dunn J. & Stocker C. (1989). “The significance of differences in siblings’ experiences within the family” In: K. Kreppner & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Family systems and life-span development Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Feinberg, M. E., McHale, S. M., Crouter, A. C., & Cumsille, P. (2003) “Sibling differentiation: Sibling and parent relationship trajectories in adolescence” In: Child Development, 74(5), 1261-1274.

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Fergusson M. David, Horwood L. John & Boden M. Joseph, (2006) “Birth Order and Educational Achievement in Adolescence and Young Adulthood” In: Australian Journal of Education. Volume: 50. Issue: 2. p: 122.

Furman W., & Buhrmester D. (1985) “Children’s perceptions of the qualities of sibling relationships” In: Child Development, 56, 448-461.

Hertwig, R., Davis, J. N., & Sulloway, F.J. (2002) “Parental investment: How an equity motive can produce inequality” In: Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 728-745.

Maccoby E. E. (1990) “Gender and relationships: A developmental account” In: American Psychologist, 45, 513-520.

McHale S. M., & Gamble W. C. (1987). “Sibling relationships and adjustment of children with disabled brothers and sisters” In: Journal of Children in Contemporary Society, 19, 131-158.

Steelman Lala Carr, Powell Brian, Werym Regina & Carter Scott, (2002) “Reconsidering the Effects of Sibling Configuration: Recent Advances and Challenges” In: Annual Review of Sociology: p. 243+Tesser A. (1980). “Self-esteem maintenance in family dynamics” In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 77-91.

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