MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: College graduation has significant implications for adult life outcomes including for employment, family formation, and health (IOM & NRC, 2015).
Investigating how sibling differences in college graduation emerge sheds light on why children growing up in the same family sometimes follow diverging paths in adulthood. Our study also responds to the call by researchers interested in policy and practice to conduct longitudinal research investigating the role of early family socialization processes in educational attainment (Pettit, Davis-Kean, & Magnuson, 2009). Despite siblings’ important role in child and adolescent development, previous research has focused on parenting and on the academic outcomes of individual children in the family.
Further, although sibling experiences, including their relationship characteristics and parental differential treatment, have been linked to sibling similarities and differences in domains such as risky behaviors (Slomkowski, Rende, Novak, Lloyd-Richardson, & Raymond, 2005), to date, there has been very little research on the role of sibling experiences in positive development, such as academic achievement.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
1) Sibling warmth in middle childhood predicted sibling similarity in college graduation about 15 years later, after middle and high school grades were taken into account. In other words, when siblings were closer in middle childhood, they were more likely to both graduate or not graduate from college at around 26 years old.
2) Fathers’ differential time with their two children and siblings’ perceptions of parents’ fairness in their treatment of themselves versus their brother or sister in middle childhood predicted sibling differences in college graduation.
3) Together, these findings highlight the long-term implications of sibling relationship experiences, an understudied domain of family life.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Sibling experiences in middle childhood, a time when foundational skills are developed, may eventuate in convergence and divergence in siblings’ education paths into young adulthood. More generally, sibling warmth (i.e., how emotionally close the siblings are) may operate to engender similarity but that the social comparison processes underlying parents’ differential treatment may operate to promote sibling differences, underscoring both direct and indirect sibling influence processes.
Parents need to be aware of the influences that siblings can have on one another and monitor their own differential treatment of their children.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: Our findings underscore the importance of moving beyond a focus on the parenting of individual children in research on family socialization processes in educational attainment, to consider the role of siblings, including both siblings’ direct effects in their daily exchanges such as relationship warmth and siblings’ indirect effects such as through social comparison processes involving parents’ differential treatment.
Parent education and family-focused prevention programs should move beyond a focus on a single child to address the relatively neglected but ubiquitous influences of siblings. We also need to examine whether findings in this study replicate in other ethnic groups.
MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Response: The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Xiaoran Sun, Susan M. McHale, Kimberly A. Updegraff. Sibling Experiences in Middle Childhood Predict Sibling Differences in College Graduation. Child Development, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13047
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