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Siblings are Great (?)

June 6, 2013

For the past two days, I have been knee-deep in piles of papers and books about child development. Honestly, I had no idea that babies have so much going on in those tiny little heads! I mean I’ve wondered what babies were thinking about as they stared at me on the bus with their big almond eyes — I secretly think babies know the answer to the universe — but seriously, I had no idea that a zillion things are going on back there in the brain.

Anyway, the paper I’m writing talks about child development and the importance of siblings. I’m trying to argue that Erikson and Ainsworth neglected to factor in sibling relationships when they were formulating their respective psychosocial developmental theory and attachment theory. I’m taking it a bit further by saying that a good (stable) sibling relationship can offset any negative effects incurred by dismissive/abusive parents. Not a lot of research has gone into this, so we’ll just have to see how (and where!) this goes….

But anyway, this blog post is not about my paper. It’s about another paper: “Sibling Relations: The Role of Conceptual Perspective-Taking in the Ontogeny of Sibling Caregiving” (Stewart & Marvin, 1984). While I was reading through the findings of the experiment, I came across a paragraph that literally made me laugh out loud. And even when I came back to it an hour later to copy and paste it here, I couldn’t help but laugh again. 

Episode 5 began with mother being requested temporarily to leave the room. Every infant responded to the departure with some degree of distress, coded as attachment behavior toward mother. Within 10 sec of mother’s departure, 29 of the 57 older siblings responded to the infant with some form of caregiving behavior. Common responses, concretely recorded by the second observer, included approaching and hugging the infant, offering verbal reassurance of mother’s eventual return, and carrying the infant back to the center of the room and distracting him or her with toys. The remaining 28 older siblings responded to the distress of the infants in a noninteractive, noncaregiving fashion, that is, turning their backs to the infants and concentrating on their own play, singing or talking loudly as if to drown out the infant’s crying, or covering their ears and moving to the corner of the room farthest from the infant. (Stewart & Marvin, 1984)

I just can’t stop guffawing when I read that last sentence. Of course, it’s my imagination getting the best of me again. I can imagine a kid — wanting to avoid his sister — moving to the corner of the room with his hands over his ears and his eyebrows knotted. I can imagine a girl starting to sing much louder so that she could overpower her little brother’s crying (this is precisely what I do now when I’m trying to ignore my 13-year-old brother’s distress over not being able to find his headphones — yes, I am rolling my eyes). I’m sorry; I just find weird things funny. And also, I’m a bad sister.

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