Why Are Big Brothers So Protective of Their Little Sisters?

Stereotypes of big brothers and little sisters have existed, well, ever since big brothers and little sisters. Little sisters are pesky and whiny while their big brothers tease and take their stuff. But no one else better bother their little sister, as far as big brothers are concerned!

Big brothers are protective of their little sisters. Reasons for this are both nature and nurture-derived and have roots seeded in tradition and backed by science. Though little sisters may protest from time to time, research tells us that this dynamic works positively for both.

As someone with two big brothers (and one younger, but also BIGGER), I’ve lived this story myself, as well as watched my own daughter navigate life’s waters with a big brother, too. The relationship of big brothers and little sisters is near and dear to my heart. But let’s look deeper at the question of why big brothers are so protective of their little sisters.

Research Behind Protective Big Brothers

My earliest memory of my big brother being protective of me was when I was being bullied at school. I remember that when my big brother heard about this, he decided to wait for me after school so that he could walk me home and ensure I wasn’t bothered anymore (and I wasn’t).

Like with my school bully memory, we all have our experiences that color our perspectives and shape our viewpoints. However, it’s important to step outside of our experiences to see what holds true for the greater population. So let’s consider what research tells us about the notion of protective big brothers.

Big Brothers Are Positive

This study from the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that the protective nature of big brothers has a positive effect on their younger siblings and are an important source of support during particularly stressful life events.

Having a big brother to ‘have your back’ so to speak has been shown to help their sisters when they needed someone to talk to…to get advice from, or seek comfort when down. My husband also happens to be a big brother to his little sister. Anytime she calls, he always answers the phone, ready to lend an ear or offer advice to whatever may concern her (no matter how often or how late that call comes).

Another study, this one from Child Welfare Information Gateway, confirms this positive effect from protective big brothers. In the study, it says that younger sisters benefit from this protective factor in multiple ways including the development of resiliency and social-emotional competency.

Big Brothers Are Smarter

Research from LiveScience says big brothers are smarter. In fact, on average they have almost 3 points higher in IQ. This is from a Norwegian study that included over 250,000. This is quite the statement I admit, and I beg to differ in my own circumstance (wink wink), but the data cannot be denied.

In another study by the same researchers, big brothers scored higher on the exams than their younger siblings (when taken at the same age) in an extensive research study spanning over 100,000 participants.

Some suggested this is because older siblings spend time tutoring and teaching their younger siblings, thus reinforcing information for themselves. But more research needs to be done in this field in order to determine definitive causes.

Big Brothers Have Influence (For Better or Worse)

Research also tells us that younger siblings will follow the footsteps of their older brothers. This does not always translate to positive behavior, nonetheless.

Here big brother, Brandon, is followed into the unfamiliar corn maze by his little sister, Lexi, and little brother, Ethan.

In fact, this study found that if older brothers smoked, their younger siblings are significantly more likely to do so, as well. To be exact, the younger sibling is six times more likely to follow suit! This is a lot of pressure on big brothers, and all the more reason for parents to instill in their older sons to be protective of their little siblings.

According to this article, older siblings, especially big brothers, are generally more successful in achievement and wealth. However, this report from the Institute of Social and Economic Research says the success of older siblings (e.g. “big brothers”) can have a “spill over effect”, meaning younger siblings can and often reap the rewards from the successful achievements of their older brothers.

So whether, positive or negative, the influence a big brother has on his younger sister is strong and life-altering! That’s certainly impetus to be protective.

Big Brothers Are Leaders

Finally, research tells us that big brothers are natural leaders. This article from the Harvard Business School says men naturally desire leadership roles. This is in tune with the characterization of protective big brothers.

They purport that this is due to older children having more responsibility and pressure to excel while younger siblings are permitted to play and relax more. Thus, big brothers are nurtured to take on leadership roles.

Traditional Roles of Big Brothers and Little Sisters

“ Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.” – Vietnamese Proverb

I like this Vietnamese proverb because it illustrates the connection and tight bond of brothers and sisters. Just like you don’t favor your hands over your feet and can’t imagine removing either from your body, brothers and sisters are both integral parts of the relationship.

However, each have their role and better function. This is how some see the traditional roles of big brothers and little sisters evolving.

Traditional Big Brother Role Crosses Cultures

Maybe it’s surprising, or not, but traditional roles of big brothers and little sisters cross many cultural boundaries.

For example, in traditional Mexican cultures, men take an authoritarian role and likewise, teach their sons while women are caretakers of the family and pass along their knowledge to their daughters. This has naturally led to big brothers feeling in charge or protective of their little sisters.

The same can be said of Middle Eastern cultures. The eldest male is considered like a second father of the family, so it only makes sense that big brothers not only will be protective of their little sisters, but it is a long-held tradition and expectation.

We see this played out once again in Asian cultures, too. In traditional Chinese homes, the eldest son is seen as another father-like figure and often helps the family financially after becoming an adult. As such, the big brother will take a fatherly, protective role over his little sister in her education, dating experience, and marriage partner selection.

Protective Big Brothers Are Courageous

Here’s the heroic story of a 6 year old ‘Big Brother’ who jumped in front of a charging dog to save his little sister.

Many times big brothers become protective of their little sisters out of acts of chivalry and courage, often times in the heat of the moment. I was so moved after hearing of the real-life heroics of six year old, Bridger.

When a German Shepherd lunged at his little sister, Bridger jumped into big brother action and stepped between his sister and the dog. His courage resulted in him needing 90 stitches, but also saved his younger and smaller sister from potentially lethal harm.

Bridger certainly demonstrated big brother protectiveness, and I don’t think his little sister minded at all!

Big Brothers and Little Sisters in Films

Movie and TV shows often mimic reality, or at least try to. As such, we can see commonly held expectations of sibling relationships played out on the screen, particularly between big brothers and little sisters.

Here are some of my favorite big brother-little sister duos from television.

Bart and Lisa Simpson

The longest running TV series is actually The Simpsons. This animated series came about in 1989 and continues to this day, forever keeping big brother, Bart, and his little sister, Maggie, in their childhood roles.

Lisa is the younger (though despite research findings, agreeably smarter) sister of Bart. Bart is frequently in trouble and scheming to get his way. Almost every episode will depict sibling bickering between Bart and Lisa.

However, one of the most loved and sweetest episodes is different from the norm. It starts out with jealous Bart teasing and bullying his sister (like usual), but ends with him lovingly hugging her because her first word is… you guessed it, “Bart.”

This episode poignantly displays the big brother, little sister relationship. It is full of love-hate conflict, but when the dust settles, love wins out.

Richie and Joanie Cunningham

This famous, iconic big brother-little sister duo came from the 50s, although the series was set in the 60s. Happy Days was a TV show centered around the Cunninghams: the hardworking dad, homemaker mom, big brother Richie, and little sis, Joanie. It also had some other recurring members such as Fonzie, Chachi, and Potsy.

However, the sibling relationship of Richie and Joanie is what we want to focus on here. Richie was the All-American, eldest son. He made good grades, was ‘clean cut’, and respectful to his elders. Joanie was the quintessential little sister: nagging, pestering, tattling, and cute (so she got away with most of it!).

I enjoyed watching these siblings interact. Joanie and Richie argued most every episode, but it never crossed the line. Joanie (and I) knew that when it mattered, Richie would always have his little sister’s back.

The Best of All TV Big Brothers: John-Boy Walton

The Waltons aired on television in 1972 and ran for nine seasons, along with a few holiday specials. The Walton family were the main focus of the series, which was set in 1930s rural Virginia.

The family unit was multi-generational: Grandpa and Grandma, the mom and dad, and then the seven children. John-Boy was the oldest and it was clear that he served as surrogate parent anytime the grandparents and parents weren’t in the room.

John-Boy was sensitive and creative, but he was not afraid to defend his little sisters. In one episode I remember a boy making unwanted advances toward Mary-Ellen (although she was the oldest of the girls, she was still John-Boy’s little sister). After telling Mary-Ellen to “get into the house”, John-Boy proceeded to teach the wayward boy a lesson, fisticuffs included!

I think it’s certain of anyone who has ever watched The Waltons to say that we all wished we had a big brother like John-Boy!

Our House, Too

Having raised both boys and girls, we have our own ‘big brother’ and ‘little sister’ among the Booe crew. Brandon is four and half years older than his little sister and she’s always looked up to him.

We raised him to ‘take care of your little sister’, to play nice with her, and to look out for her. It was taught from the beginning that that was (and still is) his role.

As much as I tried and no matter how many Barbies I bought, she never wanted to play with dolls and make-up growing up. She could always be found digging through her ‘Bubba’s’ toy box, looking for action figures, superhero capes, and toy cars.

Now, many years later, she has surpassed her brother in some regards, earning multiple scholarships and too many accolades to mention. But she still looks up to her brother and he still thinks protectively of her, especially when she’s driving cross-country alone!

I’m thankful our son, even though he is married and has children of his own, is protective of his little sister. I am glad to know that the big brother protective spirit holds no time limit!

Big Brothers Protective of Their Little Sisters Wrap Up…

With traditions (and traditional roles) often vilified today, I’m glad to say that protective big brothers still holds up under scrutiny.

  • Research backs up roles of protective big brothers.
  • Big brothers are smart, leaders, and influential.
  • Often big brothers are protective because of courageous character.
  • Big brother roles cross cultural boundaries with similarities found in Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries.
  • TV epitomized protective big brothers through long-running, iconic shows like The Simpsons, Happy Days, and The Waltons.

This article starts off with a question: why big brothers are so protective of their little sisters. But it seems that research and tradition show us quite clearly why and how this has come to be.

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