Siblings help children get along with others in kindergarten

July 21, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Children who grow up with one or more siblings get along better with their classmates in kindergarten than do only children, new research shows.

In a national study of more than 20,000 children, teachers rated students who had at least one sibling as better able to form and maintain friendships, get along with people who are different, comfort and help other children, express feelings in a positive way, and show sensitivity to the feelings of others.

"Children without siblings were consistently rated as having poorer social skills," said Douglas Downey, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"Siblings fight with each other, they have conflicts, but they also figure out how to resolve those conflicts. That probably helps them deal with other children when they go to school."

The results may seem reasonable, but surprisingly, most previous research has shown no social-skills advantage to having brothers and sisters.

"This is one case where what seems like common sense was not supported by the previous research," Downey said. "But we think our study has several advantages over what was done previously."

Downey conducted the study with Dennis Condron, a graduate student at Ohio State. Their results appear in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

The study involved data from a nationally representative sample of 20,649 children attending kindergarten in 1998-99. The data were collected by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The results showed the value of siblings, even after the researchers took into account a variety of other factors that may be influential in developing social skills, such as the socioeconomic status of the family and whether the children lived with both biological parents.

Downey said it made little difference if the siblings were brothers or sisters, if there were one or more siblings, or how close in age the siblings were.

One sibling seems to be as helpful as two or more in developing social skills. "The main distinction seems to be between children with no siblings versus those with one or more siblings," he said.

Findings suggest benefits may decline slightly when children have three or more siblings or when there are large age differences between the siblings, but Downey said these differences were not very large.

However, full siblings did seem to benefit children more than step-siblings.

While other studies have shown no social skills disadvantage for only children, Downey said most of this previous research had shortcomings. Many studies had relatively small samples and were not nationally representative. Other studies didn't test social skills exactly, but instead focused on how "sociable" children were or how much they valued friendship.

"We believe this study addresses some of the weaknesses of previous research and gives a better view of how siblings may affect social skills," he said.

Downey said parents of only children should not view these results as a reason to have another child.

"We wouldn't encourage parents to have a second child simply as a strategy for improving social skills," he said. "Our findings are consistent, but they are modest. There are other things that parents can do to improve an only child's social skills, short of having another child."

For example, he said, simply making sure young children have the opportunity to interact and play with others from an early age will help develop social skills.

But the study also points out possible broader consequences of declining family size in the United States.

"We're involved in a huge social change that has ramifications for all of us that are largely unexplored," he said. "People are growing up with fewer siblings as our families get smaller. It's worthwhile to ask what the societal implications of this change are."

Downey noted that his previous research showed a positive impact of smaller family sizes. That research showed school achievement drops among children in larger families because parents had less time and economic resources for each child.

"When you combine the research, what we've found is that larger families can have both positive and negative impacts on children," he said.
Written by Jeff Grabmeier

Ohio State University

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