Only-Child Syndrome: Lonely, Entitled — Creative?

Calum Armitage
Jun 12 · 4 min read
Artist: Mark Chadwick

Granville Stanley Hall, American psychologist, educator, and acknowledged child expert of his time, is responsible for a lot of the myths that we still carry around regarding children who grow up without siblings.

At the end of the nineteenth century G Stanley Hall oversaw a study on several hundred children and laid forth his claims about the condition of the only-child. He labelled them as ‘oddballs’, ‘misfits’, and compared the situation of the only-child as being akin to having a disease; citing that they will grow up spoiled and self-serving and require imaginary friends to keep them company.

Another psychologist, Eugene W Bohannon, also offered his analysis on the topic soon after Hall’s study was complete. Bohannon’s views aligned with Hall’s in that they both felt the idea of having and raising a lone child was an egregious one; however Bohannon allowed that only-children are at the very least imaginative. The reason for this imagination — Bohannon suggested — was that the child was using it for ‘the practice of deception and lying.’

But recent studies have indicated that these people are no more maladjusted than any other type of person; whether they grew up with a brother, a sister, or a combination of the two has no moral effect on the development of the child. A 2016 study from China led by Jiang Qiu, a professor of psychology at Southwest University in Chongqing, aimed to find out what differences, if any, were between those without brothers and sisters compared to their larger-family counterparts.

On behavioral tests the participants of the study who grew up as only-children showed no differences in relation to IQ — however they did show higher levels of flexibility — which is one indication of creativity. The brain scans of the participants painted a compelling portrait. Only-children had significant differences in the supramarginal gyrus region of their brains — the region which is associated with flexibility, imagination, and planning.

Some artistic and creative types who grew up without any siblings include the likes of Ezra Pound, Sir Issac Newton, John Lennon, John-Paul Sartre, Leonardo da Vinci, and the late Robin Williams. It wouldn’t be amiss to claim these people all had hyperactive imaginations and strong forward-planning abilities.

Da Vinci, for instance, created a ‘flying machine’ (also known as the ornithopter) over 400 years before the Wright brothers would successfully create their first powered aircraft. Da Vinci’s problem with his own machine, however, was that the person ‘flying’ it could never generate enough power to lift it off the ground. Who knows what he could’ve done with today’s current technology.

It has been hypothesised that a reason for this jolt in creativity in the singular child could be correlated with its parents having more time to interact with their son or daughter, seeking out ways to feed their child’s creativity and purchasing them things they are interested in such as books, art supplies, or instruments — whereas a parent’s time in a larger family would need to be split evenly amongst their kids, potentially resulting in them not having the financial capability to pursue these creative alleys for multiple children.

The parents of an only-child may also offer their son or daughter more independence, and some studies have pointed towards independence being a huge factor in the role of aiding creativity. It is also thought that because only-children are made privy to more adult conversation from an earlier age, the child will develop and show slightly better verbal skills than they would if they were growing up with siblings.

Loneliness is often cited as one of the major problems for the developing mind of a child. Therefore, growing up without brothers or sisters should offer its fair share of psychological problems in this regard, right? Well, not entirely. It is reasoned that loneliness, at least in non-drastic amounts, can actually play an important role.

“Alone time is, in fact, beneficial,” Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide, writes in an email to this journalist. “It encourages a child to think creatively, to come up with ways to fill time and that can spark imagination. Further, only children have the time to pursue their own interests and focus on what they like. In those ways, among others, alone time is beneficial. They also learn to be with one’s self — an important skill later in life.”

Calum Armitage

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Writer/Student of Journalism. Interested in art, literature, film.