I have to admit I was hesitant to write this. I have an only child. It’s a decision I never really questioned. Honestly, it wasn’t even a decision I made consciously. The effects of being an only child were never the question. The question was did I want more than one. I didn’t want more children. Question answered. Simple enough.
Suddenly there are lots of questions. Was it the right decision? Did I make a mistake? Are only children healthy and well-adjusted? Had I been selfish never considering the implications of having only one child? Once the questions were asked, they had to be answered.
The Truth Often Lies in the Middle
My research revealed a startling quote from Granville Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association. In 1907, he’s quoted as saying, “Being an only child is a disease in itself”.
On the other side of the argument are authors like journalist Lauren Sandler, who wrote One and Only. She claims that being an only child is preferable to a larger family. She includes studies in her book, but it feels as one-sided as the quote uttered over 100 years ago.
Perhaps the real answer is in the middle, and the best books & studies about only children reflect that. Birth order and being an only child clearly have an impact on personality traits.
These effects are both positive and negative. Instead of debating which option is better, it’s wise to learn the effects of having or being a single child. Maximize the positive effects and develop coping strategies for the negative effects.
Only Child Syndrome
Only children are often viewed with suspicion by those from large families. There’s a negative stereotype that only children are likely to display narcissism, be controlling, unable to relate to others, and form close relationships, the list goes on.
You’d think only children were raised in the wilderness with no social contact, or raised by parents who gave in to their every whim out of guilt for not providing them with siblings. Culture’s assumptions state that adult onlies must be overachievers and perfectionists. Only children are believed to be egotistical, selfish, and imperial.
Only child syndrome was popularized by Hall. This past research was conducted in rural areas where only children had limited contact with the outside world. There were also far fewer resources for parents. In large families, older children would take some responsibility for their younger siblings. Only children spent lots of time alone or with adults and had little interaction with other children.
Studies That Bust the Myth
Recent research has found the conclusions drawn by Hall and colleagues to be unfounded. Toni Falbo, a psychologist at The University of Texas at Austin conducted a small study in 1986. She found no difference in the personality traits between onlies and families who had multiple children. The only difference she found was that onlies had a closer relationship with their parents.
Andreas Klocke and Sven Stadtmüller from the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences conducted a massive study in 2018. They looked at 10,000 German schoolchildren. Their findings also revealed a closer parent-child relationship in only children.
Other studies have revealed some key differences in personality. These studies find that first-born children are similar to only children. Both have a higher ambition than a middle child or youngest child. Only children have the highest level of ambition, which often translates to academic achievement.
Children with siblings are usually more social than only children. Only children may be less popular in elementary school, but they catch up in high school.
In fact, studies suggest they have an advantage. Onlies were just as popular as teens with siblings. 39% of teen onlies reported alcohol intoxication, compared to 69% of firstborns. Children with siblings were also 50% more likely to be bullied. The theory that sibling rivalry teaches kids conflict resolution that can help them avoid being bully appears to be debunked.
Differences In Brain Development and Personality
Recent research has revealed some differences in personality and even brain structure of only children. China implemented a one-child policy 40 years ago, which makes it an interesting place for research.
Jiang Qiu of Southwest University conducted a study involving over 300 children with and without siblings.
Only children were found to be less tolerant. Having a sibling relationship and the countless struggles that come along with it helps teach children to compromise and tolerance. Only children don’t have these experiences.
Only children scored better on the creativity test. They were found to be better lateral thinkers. They were better at solving problems creatively and using their imagination. It’s thought that this is because they spend more time playing alone.
Differences in brain matter show similar differences. An MRI was used to measure grey brain matter. Only children had more brain matter in the area of the brain associated with creativity. They had a less gray matter in the area of the brain associated with emotions. This includes regulating one’s own emotions and being empathetic to the emotions of others.
This doesn’t mean that only children are doomed to have poor social skills or lower emotional intelligence. It does indicate that it’s important for a parent to find opportunities for socialization and teach emotional regulation.
The Case for the Only Child
Susan Newman is a social psychologist. When it comes to books & studies about only children, her book The Case for the Only Child: An Essential Guide is one of the best resources for a parent.
It includes studies as well as personal stories about raising an only child. It provides a realistic look at the challenges of parenting an only child and includes practical solutions.
It also explores why a single-child household is becoming more common. The book discusses societal pressure related to family size, and how to handle relatives and friends that pressure parents to have a second child.
It tackles the question does a child need a sibling with frank honesty, and shows that an only child is not inherently a lonely child.
The Only Child: Being One, Loving One
The Only Child: Being One, Loving One is a book written by Darrell Sifford. Similar to social psychologist Susan Newman, Sifford gives a realistic view of having or being an only child.
He speaks from the point of view of adult onlies as well as an only kid, giving insights that parents of onlies find valuable. He mentions that only children receive more parental attention, which provides a strong sense of self-confidence. He provides case studies of families with multiple children and single-child families.
He mentions several pitfalls single-child families commonly experience. Perfectionism is often a bigger problem for onlies than loneliness.
They have a close relationship with their parents, which instills a strong desire to please. Their desire to meet parental expectations provides achievement motivation. However, it can result in perfectionism. Perfectionism can cause low self-esteem and compulsive behavior. The book discusses the drives behind perfectionism, and how to encourage a healthy desire for success in only children.
Other issues covered in the book include overprotective parents and spoiled children. Children are inherently special to their parents. Since an only child doesn’t have to compete with a sibling for parental attention, they can develop the belief that the world revolves around them.
This belief is often corrected during the early school years, but it’s not a pleasant discovery for the child. The Only Child book provides strategies to avoid this pitfall.
Books & Studies About Only Children FAQs
What is only child syndrome?
Only child syndrome is the belief that only children have specific negative personality traits. They are seen as spoiled, selfish, and lonely. Only child syndrome has been debunked with recent studies that show the benefits and challenges of being an only child.
Does being an only child affect personality?
Some studies have indicated there are personality differences in only children. They are more creative and less tolerant and empathetic. This simply means that parents of only children should prioritize socialization and empathy.
How would you like to see conversations around family configurations shift?
The cultural misconceptions about being an only child have created negative stereotypes. Women are pressured to have the “right” number of children based on the views of others. I’d like to see the conversation about family size become honest and open.
No one should be judged based on their birth order or family size. They should be judged by their individual personality and character. The question of whether to have one child or multiple children is a personal one, and there is no right or wrong answer.
Do you think only children feel lonely?
Of course. All children, and adults, feel lonely at times. There’s no proof that only children are any more lonely than children with siblings. Imaginary friends are often thought of as a coping mechanism for lonely only children, However, this has not been linked to loneliness, and also occurs in multiple child families.
What are the advantages of being an only child?
There are many advantages to being an only child. Parents of only children have greater resources, in terms of time, energy, and money. Only children learn to be independent and creative. Spending more time around adults can give them an advantage early in school, because they have a broader vocabulary. They are often more self-confident because they don’t live in their sibling’s shadow and have a closer relationship with their parents.
Do only children have more problems making friends?
Preschool children and kindergartners have a slight social deficit when they are an only child. Once they reach middle school, the deficit disappears. In fact, the confidence and independence an only child possesses can make them more popular than peers with siblings.
Do only children typically communicate differently in relationships or show noticeable differences later in adulthood?
A recent study in Germany studied 2,000 adults and found that they were no more likely to be narcissistic than those with siblings. Only children are more likely to be comfortable being on their own. At the same time, they experience more pressure to find a mate and have children. As the only child, they have full responsibility for caring on the family line. They tend to value friendships and relationships highly and are very loyal. Close friends become extended family.