Brothers and sisters: a resource for building social capital

by Francesco Belletti, Cisf Director, Scientific Director of the Family International Monitor

At an overall glance, for the children of large families having to and being able to reckon with their siblings is a precious potential: first of all it helps them (and forces them) to reckon with others, but also to learn soon to be able/dover to ask (and give) help, to bargain, to understand that “one does not live alone” (for better or for worse); it also allows them to think about their own future in which some faces will surely be there (the siblings), in a much more reliable way than other ties.

A recent survey carried out in Italy in 2018 has deepened the value of “horizontal education” between brothers and sisters, to verify if and how much the daily experience between brothers and sisters is an added value, compared to the situation of single children, a family condition increasingly present in Italy and in most countries with high modernization. We report here some concluding reflections.

  1. There are differences between lone children and children of large families, but they are more complex and articulated than a dry correlation between the number of family members and pro social availability. For example, single children present a marked awareness (which sometimes also becomes a fear) that awaits them, in the near future, a task of caring for their elderly parents from which they can hardly escape, and from which they also seem not to want to escape. And they know very well that they will not be able to share it with others, as they know they can do for the children of large families (we are many brothers and sisters, we will be able to help each other in helping them…)
  2. On the other hand, the survey strongly revealed the centrality of the generational dimension, which characterizes the history of the young adults questioned here in a much more decisive way than any other structural characteristic: in other words, being between twenty and thirty in 2018 is a decisive factor that characterizes the personalities and life trajectories of this generation, much more than differences in socio-economic status, geographical area of residence, and even family structure.
  3. A non-marginal factor of homogeneity concerns the wealth of relational networks told by the interviewees. This generation represents itself “rich in significant relationships”: It could be a fact that allows some hope, in an increasingly individualistic society, and that tries to break the ties, rather than strengthen them; or we should go to the bottom of these relationships, to verify how many are really “solid”; or, again, wondering if the world of ties can work at this age, until you become “adults”, at home, with your own autonomous responsibilities, in front of which “the heart dries up”, friends count less and less, and in the end you find yourself much more alone than you thought (or you think you are) between twenty and thirty.
  4. This does not mean that there are no differences that make a difference; none of them, however, is enough to explain the diversity of life trajectories of the young people heard here. For example, being male or female brings with it strong differences, both in future life prospects and in the way one lives as a child (and between siblings), and there is still a stereotyped game of sexual roles, so that female daughters still have a much stronger care mandate, domestic commitment, family role than their male peers/brothers.
  5. Moreover, among the young people born in large families there are several specific characteristics, directly linked to the family condition: in particular, the theme of “early autonomy” emerges, of a significant ability (and desire) to leave home in a hurry to have spaces of responsibility and freedom of choice (maybe finally a room/house all by itself, not to have to share). This pushes / allows these children an early socialization, often rapid entry into the world of work, and also marriages and births of children long before the average values of their peers.
  6. It is more likely to find pro social and solidarity behaviour among the children of large families (participation in voluntary work, participatory bodies in school, ability to exchange help with friends), but there are many unique children involved in such activities, just as, at the opposite extreme, not all children of large families are “pro social”, outside of their own family.
  7. A final knot of objective differentiation emerges from the research, in the comparison between only children and children of large families; the presence, for those who belong to a large family, of a greater objective resource of relationships and close ties, within the family, with one’s siblings, which is difficult to replace outside the small family, and which allows one to think and live benefiting from a relational capital that is certainly more solid.

On the whole, the survey confirms the centrality of the family experience in education, in building the personality and opportunities of the new generations on their path towards adulthood: without pretensions of omnipotence, because there are many people, in addition to the family, who can contribute to the growth of people, but also with a renewed sense of responsibility, for the families themselves. Because what is lived in the family truly becomes seminarium rei publicae, a training ground to educate oneself to become responsible and fertile citizens, capable of generating the common good. And society today has an immense need to rediscover the places capable of educating the citizens of tomorrow.

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