The Duties of Brothers and Sisters

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856


Mrs. Farrar, in her excellent "Young Lady's Friend," makes the following observations, which are particularly commended to elder sisters.

The important relation which sisters bear to brothers cannot be fully appreciated, without a greater knowledge of the world and its temptations to young men than girls in their teens can be supposed to possess. And therefore I would beg you to profit by my experience in this matter, and to believe me when I assure you, that your companionship and influence may be powerful agents in preserving your brothers from dissipation, in saving them from dangerous intimacies, and maintaining in their minds a high standard of moral excellence.

If your brothers are younger than you, encourage them to be perfectly confidential with you; win their friendship by your sympathy in all their concerns, and let them see that their interests and their pleasures are liberally provided for in the family arrangements. Never disclose their little secrets, however unimportant they may seem to you; never pain them by any ill-timed joke; never repress their feelings by ridicule; but be their tenderest friend and then you may become their ablest adviser.

If separated from them by the course of school or college education, make a point of keeping up your intimacy by full, free, and affectionate correspondence. And when they return to the paternal roof, at that awkward age between youth and manhood, when reserve creeps over the mind, like an impenetrable veil, allow it not to interpose between you and your brothers. Cultivate their friendship and intimacy with all the kindness and tenderness you possess; for it is of unspeakable importance to them, that their sisters should be their confidential friends.

Consider the loss of a ball or party, for the sake of making the evening pass pleasantly to your brothers at home as a small sacrifice; one you should unhesitatingly make. If they go into company with you, see that they are introduced to the most desirable acquaintances, and show them that you are interested in their conducting themselves well.

If you are so happy as to have elder brothers, you should be equally assiduous in cultivating their friendship, though the advances must of course be differently made. As they have long been accustomed to treat you as a child, you may meet with some repulses when you aspire to become a companion and a friend; but do not be discouraged by this. The earlier maturity of girls, will soon render you their equal in sentiment, if not in knowledge, and your ready sympathy will soon convince them of it. They will be agreeably surprised, when they find their former plaything and messenger become their quick-sighted and intelligent companion, understanding at a glance what is passing in their hearts; and love and confidence on your part will soon be repaid in kind. Young men often feel the lack of a confidential friend of the softer gender, to sympathize with them in their little affairs of sentiment, and happy are those who find one in a sister.

Once possessed of an elder brother's confidence, spare no pains to preserve it; convince him, by the little sacrifices of personal convenience and pleasure which you are willing to make for him, that when you do oppose his wishes, it is on principle and for conscience' sake. Then will you be a blessing to him, and, even when differing from you, he will love and respect you the more for your adherence to a high standard.

So many temptations beset young men, of which young women know nothing, that it is of the utmost importance that your brothers' evenings should be happily passed at home, that their friends should be your friends, that their engagements should be the same as yours, and that various innocent amusements should be provided for them in the family circle. Music is an accomplishment chiefly valuable as a home enjoyment, as rallying around the piano the various members of the family, and harmonizing their hearts as well as voices, particularly in devotional strains. I know no more agreeable and interesting spectacle, than that of brothers and sisters playing and singing together, those elevated hymns which gratify the taste and purity of the heart, while their fond parents sit delighted by.

I have seen and heard an elder sister thus leading the family choir, who was the soul of harmony to the whole household, and whose life was a perfect example of those virtues which I am here endeavoring to inculcate.

Let no one say, in reading this chapter, that too much is here required of sisters, that no one can be expected to lead such a self-sacrificing life; for the sainted one to whom I refer, was all that I would ask any sister to be, and a happier person never lived. "To do good and make others happy," was her rule of life, and in this she found the are of making herself so.

Sisters should be always willing to walk, ride, visit with their brothers, and esteem it a privilege to be their companions. It is worth while to learn innocent games for the sake of furnishing brothers with amusement and making home the most agreeable place to them.

If your brothers take an interest in your personal appearance and dress, you should encourage the feeling by consulting their taste, and sacrificing any little fancy of your own, to a decided dislike of theirs. Brothers will generally be found strongly opposed to the slightest indecorum in sisters; even those who are ready enough to take advantage of freedom of manners in other girls, have very strict notions with regard to their own sisters. Their fellowship with all sorts of men enables them to judge of the construction put upon certain actions, and modes of dress and speech, much better than women can; and you will do well to take their advice on all such points.

Brothers and sisters may greatly aid each other in judging of their friends of the opposite gender. Brothers can throw important light upon the character and merits of young men, because they see them when acting out their real natures before their comrades, and relieved from the restraints of the drawing-room; and you can, in return, greatly assist your brothers in coming to wise and just conclusions concerning their female friends. Your brothers may be very much indebted to the quicker penetration of women into each other's characters, and saved by your discernment from being fascinated by qualities that are not of sterling value.

But, in order to have the influence necessary to such important ends, you must be habitually free from a spirit of detraction, candid in all your judgments, and ever ready to admire whatever is lovely and good in your own gender. If, when you dissent from your brother's too favorable opinion of a lady, he can with any justice charge you with a prejudice against her family, or a capricious dislike of her your judgment, however correct, will have no weight, and he will be very likely to become not only the lady's champion, but her lover.

If your brothers have received a classical education, and are studiously inclined, you may derive great assistance from them in the cultivation of your own mind, and bind them still closer to you in the delightful companionship of literary pursuits.

I have been told by men, who had passed unharmed through the temptations of youth, that they owed their escape from many dangers, to the intimate companionship of affectionate and pure-minded sisters. They have been saved from a hazardous meeting with idle company by some home engagement, of which their sisters were the charm; they have refrained from mixing with the impure, because they would not bring home thoughts and feelings which they could not share with those trusting and loving friends; they have put aside the wine-cup and abstained from stronger drinks, because they would not profane with their fumes the holy kiss, with which they were accustomed to bid their sisters good-night.

The duties of sisters to each other are so obvious and well understood, that it will be needless to enter fully upon them here. If your heart is right towards God, and you feel that the great business of life is the education of your immortal spirit for eternity you will easily bear with the infirmities of others, because you will be fully impressed with a sense of your own. And, when you can amicably bear and forbear, love will come in, to soften every asperity, heal every little wound, and make a band of sisters "helpers of each other's joy."

A few cases may arise, in the most harmonious families, wherein sisters may not fully understand each other's rights, and may therefore ignorantly trespass upon them. Such, for instance, as where one of the family is very fond of reading, and wishes to have a certain portion of her time uninterruptedly given to that employment, and a sister keeps interrupting her by conversation, or appeals to her for aid in some lesson or piece of work. Sometimes a great reader is made the butt of the rest of the family for that very valuable propensity, and half her pleasure in it destroyed by its being made a standing joke among her brothers and sisters.

Sisters should as scrupulously regard each other's rights of property, as they would those of a guest staying in the house; never helping themselves without permission to the materials, writing implements, drawing apparatus, books, or clothing of each other. It is a mistake to suppose that the nearness of the relationship, makes it allowable; the more intimate our connection with any one, the more necessary it is to guard ourselves against taking unwarrantable liberties. For the very reason that you are obliged to be so much together, you should take care to do nothing disagreeable to each other.

Love is a plant of delicate growth, and, though it sometimes springs up spontaneously it will never flourish long and well, without careful culture; and when I see how it is cultivated in some families, the wonder is, not that it does not spread so as to overshadow the whole circle, but that any sprig of it should survive the crude treatment it meets with.

Genuine politeness is a great fosterer of family love; it allays accidental irritation, by preventing harsh retorts and crude contradictions; it softens the boisterous, stimulates the indolent, suppresses selfishness, and, by forming a habit of consideration for others, harmonizes the whole. Politeness begets politeness, and brothers may be easily won by it to leave off the rude ways they bring home from school or college. Never receive any little attention without thanking them for it, never ask a favor of them but in cautious terms, never reply to their questions in monosyllables and they will soon be ashamed to do such things themselves. You should labor, by precept and example, to convince them that no one can have really good manners abroad, who is not habitually polite at home.

Elder sisters exert a very great influence over the younger children of a family, either for good or for evil. If you are impatient, unfair in your judgments, or assume too much authority you injure the tempers of these little ones, make them jealous for their rights, and render your own position a very unpleasant one. Whereas, if you are patient and kind, and found your pretensions to rule, not on your age, but on truth and justice the younger children will readily allow your claims.

Young children are excellent judges of the motives and feelings of those who attempt to control them; and, if you would win their love, and dispose them to comply with your reasonable requests, you must treat them with perfect candor and uprightness. Never attempt to cheat, even the youngest, into a compliance with your wishes; for, though you succeed at the time, you lessen your influence by the loss of confidence which follows detection.

With every disposition to treat the younger ones kindly, elder sisters are often discouraged by what they consider the over-indulgence of their parents towards the younger members of the family; but where this complaint is well-founded, much is still in their power. They can, by judicious conduct, do a great deal to counteract the bad effects of this parental fondness, and make the little ones ashamed to take a mean advantage of it. The very indulgent are seldom just; now children value justice and strict adherence to promises, more than indulgence, and you may mold them to your will by the exercise of those higher qualities.

It is the duty of elder sisters to take a lively interest in the education of the younger children, and to use all the advantages which they have received, for the benefit of those who are coming forward in the same line. They should aid their parents in the choice of schools, and ascertain what is actually learned at them. Where circumstances render it necessary that the elder children should assist in teaching the younger ones, it should be done cheerfully; not as a duty merely, but as a useful discipline. Some writers upon education consider teaching others as the best and most effectual way of learning one's self. It has been said, that we are never sure that we know a thing thoroughly until we have taught it to another.

If the duty of teaching has its advantages, it also has its dangers; it is a very fatiguing occupation, and ought not to occupy too much of a young person's time. Where this is required of a daughter, other home-duties should be remitted, and her day should be so apportioned as to leave her ample time for exercise and recreation, or the labor may prove injurious to her health. It is very seldom that one, who has never attempted to teach others, can duly appreciate the labor of it; and a father so circumstanced, will sometimes think that as many hours may be given to it as he gives to his business; but this is a great mistake. Nothing is so heavy a tax on mind and body, as the act of communicating knowledge to other minds; and the more intelligently and lovingly it is done the greater is the fatigue.

This duty should not be allowed to interfere with the further progress of the young teacher, for though it may be useful to go over old ground, with those who are learning, she should still be careful not to narrow her mind down to the standard of their habits; but refresh and invigorate it, at the same time, by exploring new fields of literature.

Those who are not called upon to teach younger brothers and sisters, may yet do them great good by exercising their minds in conversation, and by communicating useful information to them in their daily fellowship. The reverse of this I have sometimes observed with sorrow. I have seen amiable and well informed girls act towards these little ones, as if they were not at all responsible for the impressions they made on their tender minds. They would mislead a young inquirer by false information, and consider it a good joke; or they would harrow up young and susceptible minds by frightful stories, which, though amusing at the time, could not fail to send the little dears trembling to bed, afraid of the dark, and unable to sleep for terror. Where, however, the elder children have been properly trained by the parents, such mistakes cannot occur; and where they have not, it would require a volume to do justice to the subject.