307. Looking Up to a Sibling

I’ve already written about sibling rivalry, but I was recently reminded of another aspect of some sibling relationships. Parents and teachers serve as models for children, but so can older siblings. A younger sibling – even one who complains all the time about an older sibling – may also see that sibling as a model. Even if the older one has no interest in being anyone’s model – even if she/he has no awareness of the role. As an adult, I became aware of the ways my brothers had been models for me, and the ways I had been a model for my younger sister.
Trying to be like your older sibling can seem much more realistic than trying to be like your parents. If you’re seven years old, it’s easier to believe that you’ll be in fourth grade some day – maybe be in “major league” little league or the school orchestra like your older sibling – than to believe that you’ll be an adult – maybe a parent – and do some of the seemingly impossible things adults do.
Being someone’s model is an awesome responsibility even for an adult, so imagine how hard it must be for a child. Children are trying to figure out their own lives, and are usually much further from that goal than adults are. So it’s hard to think about setting a good example for a younger sibling. Instead of teaching newly learned skills to a little brother or sister, there can be a temptation to keep those skills as proof of superiority. After all, thinks big
brother or sister, there’s got to be someone I can be better than. And who better than that kid who’s always bugging me anyway?
But the role of model can also be a blessing for both siblings. There were times when I was sure my brothers were proud of me, and it made me so proud of myself. And I’m sure that the joy I got from teaching my younger sister was one of my main reasons for becoming a teacher. I think it helped to be separated by several years; if a child tries to be as good as or better than a sibling who is seven years older, the risk of success is not too great. The older child has had a running head start.
As adults, we sometimes worry about the little models we see. We worry that younger children will learn bad habits from older children. And probably, some of them will learn some. I don’t know how much good it does to remind older children that they should set good examples. That may help, but it may also build resentment. It may be that it’s hard enough for a child to be “good” for his/her own reasons – that trying to set a good example for someone else is too much.
But it can also feel good, as a child is trying to live up to the example set by the important adults in his/her life, to notice that someone is trying to live up to his/her example.

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