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How Children Learn from their Siblings
Magdalena Ball

  Even as I type this, my older son is "teaching" my younger son how to draw a lower case "e". As my younger son is only 2, and my older son is just turning 5, they are effectively both teaching each other. The younger one is actually learning to write at a far earlier age than he would otherwise learn - his brother has already taught him to write a perfect "O", the first letter of his name.

He is also improving his fine motor skills, something boys can always use work on (girls tend to be far more advanced naturally in fine motor skills).

My older son is not only reinforcing his own writing skills, he is learning about things like explaining clearly, dealing with another person's limitations and explaining things like pencil grip, etc.

He is also doing a fine job - better than I could. I can hear him: "it is like a roller coaster - see, here is the loop de loop and you just go around the coaster...wheee". 

According to research from Dr Deanne Pérez-Granados, Assistant Professor of Education at Stanford University, parent and sibling interactions can significantly bridge or complement children's in-school learning, with implications for smoothing children's entry into formal school. Not only can siblings teach one another in an academic sense, they also teach each other to get along with other people and also to share and negotiate for what they want (my two year old needs to work towards these skills, although he has plenty of opportunity to practice!). Some of this sibling learning will happen naturally, but there are things that parents can do to help their children become more oriented towards teaching one another, and to facilitate this all important and especially gratifying process:

1. Let your older child read to your younger one (and vice versa). This has a myriad of benefits. Firstly, it relieves the pressure on you to constantly entertain your children, but more importantly, it promotes significant self-esteem in 'reader' and even if they don't read per se, the changes are good that they will have memorised significant portions of their favourite books, and will be able to tell the story. This is actually the first stage of reading in any case, and will help both children to make the connection between listening to stories and reading them.

2. Resist the temptation to take over. If you quietly watch from the sidelines, you may be surprised at how well, and naturally your children teach one another. Obviously if there are problems or if one child is bullying or becoming discouraged you might need to intervene, but allow your children some autonomy.

3. Praise the teacher! Teaching is an act of generosity, especially on the part of young children and it should be encouraged. When you see your children teaching one another, praise and congratulate them on doing a valuable and important job. It will not only raise their self-esteem, but also encourage them to do more. Say things like "I was so impressed with the way you taught your younger brother to write an e. That was very kind of you and you are such a good teacher - look at how well he does it now thanks to you." My second child started speaking at a very early age (even earlier than his older brother) and I usually publicly credit the older one with teaching the younger one to speak, and with being a very good teacher.

4. Prepare your children for new siblings. Encourage your children to take an active role in attending to the new baby. There is much that a new baby has to learn that your children have already learned, and we all like to show off the many things we know. Older siblings can take some pride in speaking slowly and clearly to a new baby so it can learn language or even helping to do things like change nappies/diapers, assist with feeding where appropriate and other forms of grooming. You could even give them a full job, such as putting on special creams or feeding a young child who has started solids. This kind of responsibility is the first step in developing a kind of sibling pride and ownership which will carry through to other forms of teaching. Ask for their advice - eg "why do you think the baby is crying - what should we do now?" and praise them publicly and often for being "good with baby," or "good teachers".

5. Note that every child is different and encourage their diversity. You may find that your children have very different strengths and that they can use these strengths as points for teaching. My younger child is obviously not as academically advanced as his older brother simply by virtue of their ages but he was a lot better at nose blowing (a very important skill!). We gave him the job of teaching his older brother to blow his nose and he succeeded brilliantly where I had failed. The natural competition between siblings may make each child strive harder to do things they would otherwise not care much about. Don't overly compare children or speak publicly of their weaknesses.

6. Don't overdo it! Sometimes the fighting and competition can get in the way of teaching and there will be times when the older child expects too much (and they might not make allowances for developmental capabilities) or when the younger child's natural abilities outstrip and therefore embarrass an older child. Where the process is working well, stand back, praise and enjoy what is a wonderful moment of parenting. When it doesn't work, be prepared to step in, break up the fight, assist children in conflict resolution and still praise any attempts wherever possible.

There are many things that my children have learned from one another, and since they are relatively close in age, they play together constantly, the older one serving as an important role model for the younger.

The form of imaginative play that they engage in is educational in and of itself, as they are constantly testing each other's limits, trying out new things and ideas on one another and stimulating those brain synopses. Siblings will always squabble - that is unfortunately part of growing up with a brother or sister.

The squabbling itself has some learning value as children learn to work through conflict and their natural desire for instant gratification and how to get what they want. They are also learning to how to handle intimate relationships.

There is almost nothing as wonderful as watching your children teach one another, and you might be surprised at how well they teach and how much they can learn. From relationship skills to intellectual ones like speaking, vocabulary development, reading, writing, artistic development, music, dancing and the acquisition of facts, my children have learned more from one another than they have from all their formal education put together. Show your appreciation for these moments and focus on them, both when talking to other people in front of your children ("oh Jonathan is such a good teacher - he has just taught Aaron how to draw an "e") and when talking to them ("you want me to help you write that letter? Why not ask "Josh", he is the best letter writer in the family"). When it comes to the big world, that sibling rivalry may actually turn into sibling collaboration. Encourage it for all its worth.

About the Author

Magdalena Ball is Chief Editor for The Compulsive Reader at and Preschool Entertainment at, and is the author of The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, and The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications from parenting magazines to academic journals.


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