The University Record, April 12, 1993

Fathers play critical role in helping siblings get along

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

If Adam had been a better father, things might have turned out differently for Cain and Abel.

Fathers, it appears, play a critical role in helping siblings learn to get along with each other, according to U-M and Pennsylvania State University psychologists who study family dynamics and sibling conflict.

“Affectionate fathers who play often with their first-born children and help them master new skills, especially when a second baby has just arrived, will reap a bonus. Several years later, they will have two children who cooperate with each other more than they fight,” say Brenda L. Volling, assistant professor of psychology, and Jay Belsky, professor of psychology at Penn State.

The emotional support the first child gets from the father while the mother is attending to the newborn sibling may be a significant factor in the relationship between the two children in later years, the psychologists explain.

Another important factor is the special kind of learning children get from the rough and tumble play fathers engage in with their children.

“Nearly every family has moments when the mother is on the sidelines watching while the father and child romp on the floor. Pretty soon, the mother is cautioning, ‘Somebody is going to get hurt.’ And, bang! The child has smacked his head and is in tears. At that point, the father soothes hurt feelings and resolves the problem.

“By doing so, fathers become models for their children, particularly the firstborn, who learn from their fathers how to cope when emotions are running high,” Volling and Belsky say. “Then they can apply those lessons to relationships with their siblings.”

Mothers, on the other hand, are more likely to play calmly with toys, objects and books. The children do not get as emotionally excited and are not as likely to have the same type of learning experience.

“We know that sibling relationships often are training grounds for aggression, so it is good news to find that fathers can play such an active role in helping their children learn pro-social behavior,” Volling and Belsky add.

The psychologists based their conclusions on a longitudinal study of 30 families with preschool sibling pairs. The families were observed at three points during the study. The first assessed the quality of the parent-child attachments at the end of the firstborn’s first year.

A second set of observations took place after the first child’s third birthday, during which the psychologists studied the nature of the parent-firstborn relationship during play. Were the parents patient, affectionate, helpful and firm? Were they intrusive, harsh and restraining? Or were they disengaged and uninvolved with the child?

A third set of observations occurred when the first child was age 6, and included the sibling.

“This time we measured how much conflict, spontaneous cooperation and mutual enjoyment there was between the siblings, as well as their relationships with their parents,” the psychologists say.

“Our primary hypothesis was that the more secure the attachment between the first child and the parents at 12 months, and the more affectionate and supportive the parents were at 3 years, the less conflict and more cooperation there would be between the siblings later on,” Volling and Belsky explain. “Basically our results were consistent with past studies finding a connection between harsh parental discipline and sibling aggression, but the discovery of the positive role fathers can play in sibling relationships was an extra reward.”

The researchers also found that:

—When fathers expressed somewhat more affection for the older child at age 6 than the younger child, the two children were more cooperative with each other.

—Firstborn children who were not securely attached to mothers at 12 months or whose mothers had been overcontrolling and intrusive when they were 3 fought a great deal with their siblings by age 6.

Volling and Belsky reported their findings in the October 1992 issue of Child Development.