The Key to Success: Having an Older Sister

By Paige Francis

The Key to Sucess-Having an Older Sister

Toddlers with older sisters are more successful than those with older brothers


In a recent study, researches suggest “big sisters can make a powerful difference for their younger siblings. Pamela Jakiela and Owen Ozier from Williams College in Massachusetts conducted this study by looking at how many responsibilities older sisters in Kenya were given. And based on their findings, older sisters were found to have a lasting impact on their younger siblings.


Pamela Jakiela is an only child and Owen Oizer is an older brother, so they can’t speak from personal experience. They wanted to learn more about this sibling dynamic after reading that many parents in Kenya give their daughters a lot of responsibilities even when they are fairly young. "By age 6 to 8,” Jakiela shares, “ older sisters are spending as much as half of their free time looking after younger children.” This was found to be less common for older brothers. However, Jakiela says “there’s not a lot of economic or health educational research into what effect these young big sister-babysitters have on the toddlers for whom they're caring.” She also said how it would be interesting to compare young children who have an older brother compared to an older sister.


In a rural part of western Kenya, Jakiela and Ozier studied about 700 toddlers. They checked how well they were doing with early vocabulary and fine motor skills. 700 toddlers later, they had reached a conclusion; “...released in a working paper through the think tank Center for Global Development: On average, the toddlers with an older sister did better.” But how much better are these children doing? Jakiela mentioned that for a long time researchers have known that one of the factors in a child’s development is how much education their mother received. She found that for the toddlers with older sisters, it "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."


Jakiela and Ozier wanted to figure out what the older sisters were doing to create this much of an impression on their younger siblings. The two of them came up with a list of activities that would “stimulate toddlers.” This list included " having someone reading you stories, singing to you, practicing writing letters or counting with you, or doing physical play activities,” Jakiela said. After creating this list, they observed how often someone was doing these activities with the toddler and who was leading it. Across all families, the mothers engaged the toddlers this way about the same amount. As for older sisters, they were far more likely to do these activities than older brothers. “In fact, older sisters engaged the toddlers in stimulating play more than any other family member.” (NPR)  Their findings showed that if toddlers had an older sister, they were getting a significant boost in simulation. “Whereas the toddlers typically were engaged in five stimulating activities over a three-day period, when there was an older sister, ‘we see more than a 10% increase,’ Jakiela says.” 


It looks like the key to success is in fact having an older sister. Since they are given responsibilities at a young age, the free time that they do have is usually spent with their younger siblings, therefore, stimulating their developing minds. This study conducted by Jakiela and Ozier is quite interesting and should be researched more to ensure all children have a strong foundation in their early development.