In an evening spent at a local park, I observed two toddlers playing on the playground. Both toddlers were about the same size and height, and they were seemingly about two years of age. These two children stood out to me because though they seemed about the same age, their behavior on the playground was very different. As I observed, both subtle and large differences began to make themselves apparent. One of the toddlers, a male, was playing on the equipment with a male caregiver. While he was successfully navigating the obstacles, he did so with assistance from his caregiver.
The adult would hold his hand as he attempted to climb the stairs and steadied him as he walked through obstacles. When the young man slid down the slide, the adult stayed with him all along the way. The young boy did not demonstrate very much independence from his caregiver and did not interact or socialize with other children the playground. In contrast, there was another toddler, a female, on the playground who operated very independently. This young girl was playing by herself on the playground equipment when I arrived.
She was going up and down the stairs, sliding down the slide, and walking around the playground, all without the assistance of any adult. Though she moved with slow, “toddlerlike” movements, she did so on her own. She also demonstrated curiosity and independence as she explored. She wandered off to investigate the water fountain and a dog, and the mother only interfered when the toddler walked too far away by herself. I began to wonder why there was such a difference in these two toddlers.
What has led to their motor skills and independence developing in such different ways? As I began to look for factors that may contribute, one fact stood out to me. The boy playing on the playground was seemingly alone. His adult caregiver did not seem to be responsible for any of the other children on the playground, and the young boy was presumably an only child. However, the young girl had at least one if not more older siblings. I hypothesized that older sibling relationships could possibly be a contributing factor to more independent and advanced development.
The central psychosocial crisis during Toddlerhood is Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. It is imperative that toddlers develop a sense of autonomy during this time period in order to develop a strong sense of self-confidence. Developing motor skills, social skills, and independence from the parent are all key parts to developing this sense of autonomy (Newman & Newman, 2015). Research has shown that having an older sibling impacts some of these important developments.
Having siblings has an impact on the development of motor skills. A study by Wijtzes et al. 2013) found that toddlers with two or more siblings were more active and displayed less sedentary behavior than toddlers who were only children. Older siblings have also been found to influence the onset of motor skills in infants (Berger & Nuzzo, 2008), as well as goal directed motor function in twelve-month old infants (Reid, Stahl, & Striano, 2010). Imitation is the central process that allows toddlers to achieve autonomy (Newman & Newman, 2015), and having an older sibling provides another model for the toddler to imitate (Venetsanou & Kambas, 2010).
These findings could provide an explanation for why the toddlers on the playground were so vastly different; perhaps having siblings positively influenced the young girls’ motor development, allowing her to develop more independence at an earlier age. Siblings can also have an impact on social development. Siblings often serve as the first extended social interaction with other children (Venatsanou & Kambas, 2010). Children with siblings are found to have more opportunities for social interactions as well as more mature play partners, while only children may be less prepared to manage conflicts with their peers (Newman & Newman, 2015).
Alfred Adler even took it one step further and theorized that birth order of siblings greatly influences how they see the world. The position one occupies in a family can impact how one interacts with others (Corey, 2013). Clearly, siblings can have a profound influence on the development of a child. As a school counselor, this information could prove vital for my practice. Family dynamics and sibling relationships will influence the well being of my students, and it is important to consider this information for each child.
For example, Kindergarten students who have not attended preschool and also do not have any siblings may be considerably less prepared for social interactions with others than those students who have. It could possibly be beneficial to form a group at the beginning of the year with these students to work on conflict resolution skills. As a counselor. I should be on the lookout for students who are coming into school at different levels of development so I can help them make the transition as smooth as possible.
Birth order could also be a factor to consider in my counseling practice. Students may display behaviors that are tied to their birth order, and it might could be information that would help inform my work with a client. While I don’t think every person fits Adler’s mold exactly, I do think that his framework gives a starting point to think about and investigate where behavior is originating from in the context of sibling relationships. It is imperative that I take sibling relationships into account when counseling children.
Disruptions in the lives of siblings can cause disruptions in the life of my client, and it is important to investigate all aspects of a client’s family in order to best help them. In my initial intake with students, it may be beneficial to gather information about the structure of the child’s family so that I can be better informed and prepared. As I found in my research, having siblings can influence everything from motor skills to social skills, and it is an aspect of children’s lives that should not be overlooked.