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Sibling Relationships

Sibling Similarities And Differences, Siblings In Non-western Cultures, Sibling Relationships Across The Life Span

Relationships with extended kin, spouses, parent and child, and siblings are all affected by a changing social world. Family size (one indicator of sibling structure) is shrinking in many societies. The International Database of the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2001) reports an all-time low of 2.76 children per woman, down from 4.17 in 1960. Growing up with fewer siblings (or none, as is mandated in much of China) has profound implications in terms of intrafamily relationships, inheritance possibilities, and obligations and responsibilities for family members.

Dimensions of the sibling relationship. Sibling relationships can be analyzed according to a number of factors, including position within the sibling system, roles assumed by different siblings, family norms for children's expected behavior, the extent of coalition formation within the sibling system, and the functions siblings perform for each other. Expected behavior for siblings may depend on where the child is in the sibling hierarchy (oldest, middle, or youngest child) and whether the child is male or female. At all ages, sisters are reported to be, and report themselves to be, closer to one another than are brothers or cross-sex sibling pairs. Position and sex may dictate role behavior (e.g., who assumes outside versus inside chores or acts as caretaker for younger siblings). Coalitions foster sibling solidarity, counter the power of parents or other sibling subgroups, and develop to strengthen siblings' positions in times of conflict. Siblings serve many functions for one another. Some of these include serving as a "testing ground" for one another when experimenting with new behaviors or ideas before exposing them to parents or peers; serving as teachers; practicing negotiation skills; and learning the consequences of cooperation and conflict and the benefits of commitment and loyalty. Older siblings may serve a protective function, "translate" parental and peer meanings for younger brothers and sisters, and act as pathbreakers when new ideas or behaviors are introduced into the family. For example, parents may object less when a younger son decides to get his ear pierced, or a younger sister decides to have the small of her back tattooed, because an older sibling already weakened parental resistance. Lastly, it is within the sibling group that children first experience feelings of fairness and justice. Siblings compete for resources within the family, and if resources (such as affection, time, attention from parents, space, or material goods) are scarce, children watch closely to ensure that they are getting their fair share (Ihinger 1975). What appears to distinguish middle childhood sibling behavior of children in the United States from its non-Western counterpart is that it reflects a family system based upon independent relationships. It mirrors the prototypical Western family as a culture of individualism (as compared to a culture of collectivism). The consequence of such behavior is intergenerational and interpersonal independence (Kagitcibasi 1996).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended Family