Family trees have always had lots of branches. And increasingly, some have more inter-connected twigs and leaves than others. What do all those little leaves on a family tree—the siblings, step-siblings, and half-siblings—think about one another?
According to a remarkable new study that took a rare look at what kids themselves think about their sibs—all of them—they think having a sibling is a pretty great thing…if, sometimes, a little complicated.
Hello “modern siblingship.”
Here’s what different—and pretty cool—about this study: In the past, researchers mostly took a top-down, parent-child view of siblings. They studied things like birth order, relationships with stepchildren, or sibling rivalry.
But these Danish researchers decided to ask the kids themselves about what they think about their siblings. They turned their research into an e-book and a film that features 30 of the kids from 10 constellations of siblings—some who live together with all their siblings, some who live in multiple homes, and a few who live in boarding schools.
Siblings have their own special dynamic, says Ida Wentzel Winther, an associate professor at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University.
The study, which involved interviews with 94 kids in all between 2011 and 2014, is one of the deepest looks yet at “modern siblingship” and reveals some big (and important) surprises.
Sure, family life looks a little different in Denmark, where hyper-shared custody agreements are so common that even some train cars are designated for kids commuting between parents. But kids are kids—and their relationships to one another, as they revealed to the researchers, seem pretty universal.
Some study highlights:
Kids don’t always think of “siblings” the way we do.
As adults, we tend to use fixed, legal definitions of siblings: by blood or marriage. But kids don’t always see it that way. They pay less attention to things like whether they’re biologically related or live together with their siblings, the study shows, and more to their own circumstances.
One kid, for example, might have a skeptical view of forging a lifelong bond with new siblings when his dad has had three different girlfriends (all with their own kids). He may never see his step-sibs as really related. Another child may grow close to her stepsister and stay close even after their parents break up.
Whether the kids have the same two parents or not, how they feel about a sibling can depend on who’s living in the house at any given time, how much time they’ve spent together building a shared personal history, and what kind of age gaps there are.
One surprising finding: how deeply affected siblings can be when one sib moves out of the household—say by going away to school or by going to visit a different parent. The researchers interviewed one boy who said his parents were divorced, even though they weren’t. It turned out that his two older sisters left every third week to live with their father (one of his parents’ earlier partners), so he thought of his entire family as divorced.
Here’s something else we tend to overlook as parents: Kids have a different sense of time. Say a man marries a woman with a 5-year-old. This second marriage lasts five years, and then the couple splits up. Five years might not seem like a long time in the arc of the mother’s adulthood. But to her 10-year-old, it’s been half a lifetime.
Kids often come up with their own descriptions of their complicated relationships: “bonus brothers,” “weekend sisters,” “part-time sibling,” “everyday sibling” or “live-alone child” (for a child being raised alone because her half-siblings are grown or live with their other parent).
All those conflicts have a silver lining.
When siblings are in close contact, they fuss and fight. In addition to being annoying to hear, sibling friction can ripple through the whole family. (“Siblings are people you hit and kiss on the back of the neck,” one boy told the researchers.)
All that bickering has a big up side, though. It’s another important way that siblings get close to one another, the research shows. Sharing a history of friction helps cement closeness. When parents put bans on arguing in hopes of achieving harmony-for-all, it can backfire by restricting kids from getting to know one another and sussing out everyone’s boundaries.
And bickering seems to be especially helpful among step- or half-siblings.
Having siblings teaches a lot of nice social skills too.
A lot of social learning takes place within sibling relationships, the Danish researchers say.
They were surprised by how deeply the kids seemed to care about one another. Even when they couldn’t do anything about a particular situation, they expressed concern for whether the brother or sister were all right.
They also have a built-in assumption of unconditional loyalty. Kids see siblings—whatever the blood or legal ties—as “someone who should always be there for you.”
Kids who deal with more than one household also tend to be very good at logistics, they found. They have to do a lot of social coordinating.
What looks like downtime to us is big time for them.
Parents tend not to think much about all that time kids spend playing video games or horsing around— or just getting ready and going to school together. But this is “special sibling time,” the researchers found.
Especially for kids who move between households, these little routines help them settle in and build closeness.
Social media isn’t just for friends—it reinforces sibling ties too.
A “like” on a post might not seem like much of an interaction. But siblings use texts, posts, and other quick social media connections to stay close. It’s a way of being together that happens entirely apart from parents.
Especially when a sib goes away to school, moves between different households, or is separated from past siblings by divorce and remarriage, they use social media as an extension of the back-and-forthing siblings do when living in the same place.
Being a sibling shapes kids’ identities.
It’s more complicated than just birth order or gender, the researchers say. Being a sibling influences how you think about yourself and how you present yourself in relation to others. Kids might do and like certain things or activities in order to seem different from a brother or a sister—or more alike.
And this identity can change over time, as kids grow and move in and out of a house, or as families themselves change due to new births, divorce, remarriage, or merged households.
Forcing or rushing new sibling relationships tends to backfire.
Kids take their cues from parents, according to the study. We set the tone for expectations about getting along, treating one another fairly, respecting one another, and all that.
With the best of intentions, parents in blended families tend to be especially eager for new siblings to spend time together and bond. Sometimes, we can be too eager, the researchers found. Even though we want all our kids to develop close relationships quickly, the study showed, we can’t hurry love.
Pushing kids to get together can feel like pressure to them. The efforts then backfire, and the kids feel less close. Better: Avoid interfering in forging relationships between the kids, the research suggests; let new siblingships develop more slowly and naturally.
Siblings care more than we sometimes think.
One thing’s clear: Kids seem to value the other kids they call “brother” or “sister” or “part-time sibling” or “bonus brother.”
The researchers say it’s “simply astounding” how motivated kids are to try to set up and keep up relationships with siblings of all kinds, and how strongly many desire that they last a lifetime, and work to overcome obstacles to make that happen.
That‘s true whether a sibling is added to their family tree by shared DNA or another way. On some instinctive level, kids seem to sense these added leaves are really worth having.
Just as we’re always thinking about our kids, it turns out, they’re also thinking about one another.