Media ignore research-based advice that would smooth sibling ties

December 21, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Two University of Illinois researchers duly note in a new study that welcoming a second child into a family and helping the children establish sibling relationships involves many challenging tasks. Unfortunately, they say, the advice parents are getting falls short.

Most troubling is that "pronounced gaps exist between the advice offered in popular press materials and the available research," the authors wrote in the January issue of Family Relations, a quarterly journal of the National Council on Family Relations. Research-based strategies for helping older children establish a positive relationship with a new sibling don't get sufficient emphasis in the popular press, said Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied family studies in the department of human and community development. In their study, Kramer and postdoctoral researcher Dawn Ramsburg reviewed 47 popular books published in 1975-2000; 16 were devoted solely to sibling relationships, and 31 had related chapters.

Absent, they said, was a lack of recognition of the changing face of the family. The number of working mothers increased from 31 percent to 59 percent in those years, "but there is very little being written that speaks to dads, and a lot of what has been written is really insulting," Kramer said. "Much of it is written for women about how men could get involved. It doesn't acknowledge that dads have their own pressing interest in learning to relate better to their kids."

They also found "a real disconnect between the types of information that families want and need and the kind of information that they are finding in the popular press," she said. "A lot of what is out there is based on people's ideas about what should work for families, based on conventional wisdom or personal experience, and a lot of that information has not been tested for its accuracy." Too much attention, for example, is devoted to optimum spacing between children, with a wide range of conclusions, she said. Writers also dwelled on how to prepare for a second baby, such as what and when to tell an older child, and how much of a care-giving role an older child should have, but the advice doesn't go far enough, Kramer said.

Based on her own studies and a review of recent research, Kramer said, "we find that when that second child is born doesn't account for a whole lot of difference in terms of how well children get along." Much of her research focuses on factors that set the stage for positive sibling relationships. Older children learn to respect a younger child, she said, when they are coached both on the changes a baby will bring and on how a baby will be a new person "with its own needs and ideas and feelings."

There is a need for reliable information for parents, pediatricians, educators and child-care providers, Kramer said. Writers need to be better tuned into the research, she said, as much as the scientists need to be working harder to address the issues that are important to families.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture supported the research.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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