Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sibling Relationships over the Life Course: A Panel Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Sibling Relationships over the Life Course: A Panel Analysis

Article excerpt

Using pooled time series analysis on approximately 9,000 individuals ages 16-85 interviewed in the 1987-1988 and 1992-1994 waves of the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), this research examines change in 4 behavioral measures of sibling relationships-proximity, contact, giving help, and receiving helpover the life course. All four measures of sibling relationship decline significantly during early adulthood, but proximity and contact stabilize in middle age and do not decline further, whereas sibling exchange demonstrates a slight rise after approximately age 70. Life course analyses provide only modest support for a model in which siblings substitute for parents, spouses, and children. With the partial exception of proximity, measured life course changes do not explain observed age effects.

In the daily round of activities that occupy the foreground in adult lives, siblings generally play a minor role (Wellman & Wortley, 1990). If one shifts one's perspective from a snapshot of daily life to a lifetime perspective, however, siblings play a more prominent role. Siblings are those with whom one most closely shares genetic, family, social class, and historical background and to whom one is tied for a lifetime by a network of interlocking family relationships. Cross-sectional evidence suggests that the average adult has contact with a sibling once or twice a month for 60 or 70 years after leaving home (White & Riedmann, 1992), and most adults perceive significant reciprocal obligations between siblings (Connidis, 1994; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). Although the sibling relationship may not be central in most adults' lives at any given point in time, it is unique in its durability.

In a pattern familiar to other areas of family study, research on sibling relationships tends to focus either on childhood or old age. Although developmentalists stress the importance of siblings as childhood rivals and mentors (Hetherington, 1994) and gerontologists argue that siblings take on a renewed importance in old age (Gold, 1989), researchers know little about sibling relationships between 20 and 60. Almost all of the research on siblings is based on small, nonrandom samples in a cross-sectional or retrospective design. Even for the most often-cited conclusions, such as the increased importance of siblings in old age, the research base for adult sibling relationships is weak. The present study uses pooled time series techniques on a large national panel sampled by the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) in 1987-1988 and 19921994 to extend the knowledge of how sibling relationships change over time. Using four measures of sibling relationships (proximity, contact, giving help, and receiving help), it describes changed sibling relationships from age 18 to 85 and examines whether observed changes are attributable to related family life course changes, such as parental and marital status. The data set does not contain measures of affection or psychological importance of the sibling relationship, however the analysis provides useful descriptive information about changes in the behavioral dimensions of sibling relationships over a broad age range.


Conceptual Frameworks

Underlying most interpretations of sibling relationships is the assumption of a hierarchy of kinship relationships. This standard kinship model envisions family ties as a set of nested circles. The inner circle contains those with whom one has the closest relationships, those who have the strongest claims on one another. The second and outer rings contain those with progressively less demanding attachments. Although siblings are considered to be members of the inner circle during childhood, it is normative for adults to reorganize their inner circles to give children, spouses, and parents priority over siblings (Parsons, 1943). Rossi and Rossi's (1990) research on normative obligations to various classes of kin suggests that this norm is widely shared. …

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