Having a big sister raises your chances for success, study says

Researchers have found a link between life success and having a big sister.

There are also, however, potential downsides for sisters.

Economists Pamela Jakiela and Owen Ozier of Williams College in Massachusetts were prompted to carry out a study after reading that many Kenyan parents give their daughters a big load of responsibility when they’re still young kids.

“By age 6 to 8, older sisters are spending as much as half of their free time looking after younger children,” Jakieka says.

And that is much less the case when it comes to older brothers.

Researchers have been studying this topic for many years.

But according to Jakiela, there aren’t a lot of economic or educational, or health studies that have looked into what effect young big sister carers have on the little ones they’re looking after.

“And so we thought that it would be interesting to compare young children who have an older sister as compared to an older brother,” she says.

Ozier and Jakiela looked into the lives of around 700 little children in rural Kenya to see how well they were doing on fine motor skills and early vocabulary and they found that toddlers who had a bigger sister to care for them did better on average.

According to Jakiela, the researchers have long been aware that a mother’s level of education has a huge impact on a child’s development. She also found that for little children with bigger sisters,

“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.”

But what makes big sisters so good for toddlers?

The researchers tried to answer this question by listing a number of activities that would stimulate little children.

For example, Jakiela says,

“having someone reading you stories, singing to you, practicing writing letters or counting with you, or doing physical play activities.”

They then looked into how often people were doing these things for toddlers – and who was mostly doing it. What they discovered is that across all families the mothers engaged the little kids this way to about the same extent. However, older sisters were much more likely to do this than older brothers. Furthermore, they engaged in this much more than any other family member. So, if little children happened to have an older sister, they were getting much more stimulation.

When little children were engaged in five stimulating activities over a period of three days, when there was an older sister involved,

“we see more than a 10% increase,” Jakiela notes.

Jakiela stresses that this shouldn’t be seen as definitive proof that additional stimulation is the reason children with older sisters performed better on those measures of early development.

However, she believes it is a plausible explanation that is also supported by other recent studies.

Pakistani economist Javaeria Qureshi of the University of Illinois at Chicago compared girls who lived far away from girl schools with those who lived nearby – and hence were much more likely to attend studies. She found that there was a large benefit to younger brothers of the girls. It seems that older sisters were aiding the boys with their studies at home. And the more the girls knew about a given subject, the better the boys performed in school.

Qureshi said:

“I find that an additional year of schooling completed by the oldest sister translates to [the equivalent of getting an] additional fifth of a schooling year for the younger brother.”

“It’s really a testament to this important role that older sisters play in raising their younger siblings across most of the developing world.”

And as beneficial as it might look, Jakiela says it is crucial to take into account the potential downside.

“Seen through the lens of the younger child,” she says,

“it’s a charming story of everybody loving their older sister. But this uneven burden of care work has real costs for older girls.”

For example, it often translates to them having less time to do their own homework and play outside.

Many other researchers have also looked into the matter.

Economist and public health expert at Harvard University, Marcella Alsan, for example, looked into schooling data for over 120,000 teens in 38 low and middle-income countries. She and her colleagues found that when a younger sibling in a household was ill, the older girls seemed more likely than the boys to stay home so they could care for their sick sibling.

Alsan says that when it came to the school attendance of the big sisters and big brothers,

“the gender gap increased to almost 8 percentage points if there had been one illness episode.”

 “It increased further if there were two or more illness episodes.”

In another study, where Alsan looked at Turkish children, she found that a vaccination campaign for little children had a positive spillover effect on their older sisters.

“This did free up girls to attain more education,” Alsan says.

In short, improving the health of little children – so they don’t need as much constant care – may also be a way to boost the quality of life and education for older girls.

According to the researchers, these findings show that governments need to take these issues at heart when making policies and find the proper solutions.

What are your thoughts on this study? Let us know by joining the conversation in the comments and please share this article if you’ve found it of value.

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