We're Placing Too Much Burden On The Big Sisters

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 

My father left when I was nine, and my mother began working two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. I can remember her leaving around the time I got up for school, and often coming home around the time I went to bed. With dad not around, and my mother working so much to make ends meet, the work of caring for me, the youngest in the family, fell on my older sister, Melissa, seven years older than me. She was in high school, and eventually college, and in so many ways, she was a second mother. She made dinner, she made me brush my teeth in the mornings, and she tried — sometimes unsuccessfully — to get me to complete my homework. And I must admit, when I look back on that very difficult time, I cannot help but be grateful I had a big sister.

According to a recent study by economists Pamela Jakiela and Owen Ozier of Williams College in Massachusetts, having a big sister is a huge boost for younger siblings. “By age 6 to 8, older sisters are spending as much as half of their free time looking after younger children,” Jakiela told NPR. And that additional time means additional educational gains for younger siblings.

Their study took place in Kenya, and was published by The Center For Global Development. The study included nearly 700 toddlers. They looked at how these children scored on everything from early vocabulary to fine motor skills. And what they found was, on average, the children with older sisters scored better. But that wasn’t exactly the case with children who have older brothers.

The question is, how much better did they score? Going back to Jakiela’s discussion with NPR, for toddlers, having an older sister “translates into about the same difference we see when we compare young children whose mothers finished secondary school to those whose mothers only finished primary school.”

That equates to some pretty big gains. The more educated a mother is, the better it is for children; this is a well-documented reality. In fact, a 2015 study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family found that having an educated mother helps children succeed not only at school, but also by expanding their academic knowledge, and by modeling good educational and social behaviors. So this comparison to a big sister having a similar educational impact on toddlers as an educated mother is huge.

Naturally, as I read through this study, I couldn’t help but wonder — is being a big sister really all that beneficial to the big sister? Sadly, there are challenges here. If you get to the meat of this study, it seems clear that the reason there is a boost in development among toddlers with big sisters is because of time. Toddlers with a big sister get more time, and it is often spent reading, learning, or playing. And it’s not a small amount of the older sister’s free time; it’s close to 50% of it. Having a big sister often means a younger sibling is getting much more attention because there are two maternal figures caring and teaching the child, but older sisters are saddled with more childrearing obligations, and that means a personal sacrifice.

This becomes particularly apparent when you look at sick days. Harvard economist Marcella Alsan did a very different study, looking at how sick siblings impact older siblings’ school attendance. What she found that when a younger sibling is sick, the older sister is far more likely to miss school to care for her younger brother or sister. This was far less likely for older brothers. And to be honest, when I look back at my own childhood, when I was sick, my older sister stayed home from school to care for me, because my mother needed to work.

Not to say that my sister didn’t finish high school; she did. But she never finished college, and there is part of me that wonders if I am to blame for that. In fact, she’s now in her mid-40s with adult children, and is going back to school to get a degree. While in contrast, I am seven years younger, and finished my masters almost 10 years ago. Long story short, she took the time to care and help educate me and I benefited — while she is only now, as a middle aged adult, starting to take time out for herself.

The bottom line here is this: having an older sister is awesome… for the younger siblings. It means a huge educational boost. It means more time spent caring for the younger child, and it means more attention, and all of that translates to educational and developmental gains. But sadly, this also can mean a sacrifice for the older sister. So my friends, if you have an older sister, stop what you are doing and take a moment to give her thanks. She deserves it. And if you are a parent right now, take a moment and notice what your oldest daughter is up to, and make sure she isn’t caring for her siblings and sacrificing her own development in the process.

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