1) Older siblings are role models for babies.
According to a study published in New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, siblings are even more influential role models than parents when it comes to everyday situations. “We know that having a positive relationship with siblings is related to a whole host of better outcomes,” says Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois. By welcoming older siblings and encouraging their relationships with babies and toddlers throughout storytime, we can foster positive relationships that impact the whole family.
2) Older siblings can help out!
Channel an older sibling’s energy by asking him to help pass out shaker eggs or hold a puppet in a story, and you’ve got an eager helper who is modeling cooperation skills for the little ones! And here is the key – you’ve got to be prepared to guide them. Just as parents don’t always know to sing along without encouragement, siblings don’t always know how to help out – but most of the time they are desperate to! A little planning ahead and gentle guidance can go a long way.
3) You can model early literacy skills for the whole family.
When we model fingerplays, bounces, and story-sharing for parents, we are also teaching older siblings by example. Encourage siblings to join in the fun and interact with their babies, with stuffed animals or dolls, or with you! (Kathy often invites an older sibling to be her “bouncing buddy” during the lap-rhyme segment of her baby programs.) Positive encouragement of sibling interaction with the little one in storytime will translate later into sharing of rhymes and stories in a spontaneous way at home.
4) The presence of older siblings allows you to discuss and model coping skills for parents.
By welcoming older siblings into storytime, we open a space up for discussion of everyday practicalities – how do you select a story that will appeal to a one year old and a five year old? How do you read to both at the same time? We can offer resources and strategies for incorporating early literacy into the real lives of families. Many parents hold feelings of guilt that they are not doing all the things they think they should to promote their children’s language skills – especially when the demands of taking care of multiple children seem to take up every minute of the day. By acknowledging the everyday challenges parents face, we can support more positive environments for all children.
5) Older siblings are an inescapable part of a baby’s world.
Babies and toddlers don’t exist in a vacuum. Older siblings are a part of their world every day, and, as we saw above, can become their most powerful role models. The reality of life for many families is that, if older siblings are not allowed in a program, no one will be able to attend. While it might be nice to be able to offer a storytime that focuses with laser-accuracy on the developmental needs of one specific age group, the fact of the matter is that, even if you restrict your program to a narrow age range and disallow siblings, participants will still represent different stages of physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Welcoming older siblings supports the development of babies and toddlers by supporting the family as a whole.
One last thought:
When you allow older siblings into your programs, is it with a welcoming attitude, or an impatient sigh? (And we all know that kids can tell the difference!) Perhaps what we need is a paradigm shift in the way we look at siblings in storytimes: not as a distraction or a potential problem, but as little helpers with the wonderful potential to be excellent role models for the babies and toddlers in their lives.