040: Only children: Are they as bad as advertised?

Jen Lumanlan
Jun 4, 2017 · 23 min read

Today’s episode comes to us as a result of a listener named Sylvia who wrote to me saying she and her partner don’t want another child but are worried about the potential impact on their daughter of growing up without siblings. But why would there be a potential impact?

Turns out there’s a slew of information in the popular press about how only children grow up with no way to learn social skills, which makes them simply awful to be around. And everybody agrees — from parents of multiples and children who grew up with siblings, to parents of only children and even only children themselves — that only children are more selfish and not as nice to spend time with as children who grew up with siblings.

No wonder Sylvia is worried!

Personally I don’t have this problem; my own selfishness about not wanting a second child has overridden the issue of growing up without siblings to the extent that I had actually never considered it a potential problem until I received the question. But having pondered it and found that there is some research on it, I decided the time was ripe to find out whether only children really are as awful as popular wisdom says they are and, if so, what I could do about it before it’s too late!

Listen up, my friends. Will I be vindicated, or will I throw away that pack of birth control pills before the end of the episode?

References

Bohannon, E.W. (1896). A study of peculiar and exceptional children. Pedagogical Seminary 4(1), 3–60.

Falbo, T. (2012). Only children: An updated review. The Journal of Individual Psychology 68(1), 38–49.

Fenton, N. (1928). The only child. Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology 35, 546–556.

Mancillas, A. (2006). Challenging the stereotypes about only children: A review of the literature and implications for practice. Journal of Counseling and Development 84(3), 268–275.

McKibben, B. (1998). Maybe one. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Nachman, P., & Thompson, A. (1997). You and your only child: The joys, myths, and challenges of raising an only child. New York, NY: Skylight.

Newman, S. (2001). Parenting an only child: The joys and challenges of raising your one and only. New York, NY: Broadway.

Polit, D.F., Nuttall, R.L., & Nuttall, E.V. (1980). The only child grows up: A look at some characteristics of adult only children. Family Relations 29(1), 99–106.

Roberts, L., & Blanton, P. (2001). “I always knew mom and dad loved me best”: Experiences of only children. Journal of Individual Psychology 21, 155–160.

Sandler, L. (2013). One and only: The freedom of having an only child, and the joy of being one. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Simon, R.W. (2008). The joys of parenthood, reconsidered. Contexts 7(2), 40–45.


Transcript

Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Before we get going with the show today I wanted to take a minute to thank those of you who have been so generous with your time and money over the last couple of weeks. Several of you have been kind enough to offer advice based on your personal expertise that really helped me to figure out the direction for the show, as well as how to reach some more listeners. And a few of you have gone over to yourparentingmojo.com/support to offer either a one-time or an ongoing donation to support the costs involved with running the show. One awesome listener works for Adobe and used a discount code to get a cheap subscription to the editing software that I use and then donated the remaining amount, so I got a year of free access to the editing software — that is certainly a huge help. Another listener sent a cool hundred bucks and when I wrote to say ‘thanks’ (as I do to everyone who sends a donation) she responded (and I do have her permission to share this with you):

You’re welcome…I listen when I can (sporadically)…usually while commuting. I always enjoy it. Honestly, though, the donation was almost entirely for the pleasure of watching my mother-in-law almost pass out when my daughter told her that the carseat buckle was “hurting her vulva.” :-) (I love her, but she’s quite proper and inhibited about some things.) I was able to point to your episode on sex and walk her through the benefits of using accurate anatomical labels. She appeared to get it. (And even if not, she now has something to think about…and I got a good chuckle.).

So whatever it is you get out of the show, I’m glad you’re along with me for the ride. If you feel like contributing then awesome! Thanks so much. And even if you don’t, but you have a question or just want to say ‘hi,’ you can do that at yourparentingmojo.com as well. I love hearing from you all.

Today’s episode is probably one I should have done a long time ago, but it was actually a question from a listener that prompted it. Sylvia wrote to me and said “Hi — I very much enjoy your podcast. I’m wondering if you can do an episode on the importance of siblings (or not). We don’t want another child but are worried about the potential impact on our daughter of growing up without siblings.”

Now I don’t think it’s any secret around here that I’m not planning on having any more children, although we do have some friends who just announced their second pregnancy and I’ll say for a few minutes I did wonder what it would be like to think about having a second child. But then I thought about an interview that I’m preparing for with Sara Dean of the Shameless Mom podcast (which may well be live by the time this episode goes live). At the end of each interview she asks several rapid-fire questions, one of which is “what superpower would you grant moms?” And the best one I could think of was the power to experience time in a different way so that instead of having to look back on those early days with a baby and remember what they were like, we could actually experience them again. Wouldn’t that be cool? And at the same time, wouldn’t it just be the best birth control if we could also experience the day four mama meltdown and the wake-ups every two hours throughout the night again?

I never thought I’d have one child in the first place; I was quite happy to be childless. I just didn’t have that urge that I’m told many women have that just makes them *want* children, but my husband actually did have it so I ended up having our daughter because I didn’t want to be responsible for the biggest disappointment of his life. So far I’d say parenthood has exceeded my expectations, largely because I got a pretty easygoing kid who isn’t at all difficult to love. But there’s really just no way that I can have a second one; I’m not at all ashamed to say that I meet one of the stereotypes of the parents of a single child — I’m too selfish to have another one. I spent ten days hiking around Mont Blanc when my daughter was eight weeks old; it was a big part of how I reconciled my previous life with being a parent. But how on earth would I do that with a three year old in tow? How would I do pretty much anything except *be a parent?* So the reason I hadn’t even thought of doing an episode on the single child was because mine was already committed to being a single child and I didn’t really figure there was a whole lot different about parenting a single child than more than one. But when Sylvia’s question came through I realized that I hadn’t really given it the attention it probably deserves, so I have not one but two episodes coming up for you, no matter on which side of this fence you sit. Today’s episode will focus on parenting an only child, and we’ll have one coming up in the near future on the relationships between siblings and how they impact a child’s development.

So parenting single children used to be a pretty strange thing. Large families have been common for hundreds of years mostly because of the amount of work that needed to be done on a farm — and the infant mortality rate was so high that parents *had* to keep having children just to make sure they would have enough children to keep the land producing food. Even once western society was well into the industrial age, it was almost like we just had a habit of producing large families that we couldn’t get out of, and this was supported by a variety of pieces of advice from the popular press up to neuropsychiatrists, who had a poor opinion of only children. I should say that in this episode I’m going to draw on three books on only children (as well as the studies they cite), and primary among these is one called “One and Only” by Lauren Sandler. It’s very well written and seems to be fairly well sourced, although it’s hard to tell for sure because Ms. Sandler isn’t very good at citing those sources. Sometimes she does actually describe a particular study and it’s authors well enough for me to be able to find it, but often she just makes vague mention of something like a Gallup Poll, which doesn’t give me anywhere near enough information to find it and verify that it says what she says it says. Having come pretty close to getting burned on that front in episode 18 on the book “The Spiritual Child,” where the author did cite her sources which enabled me to find that several of them were seriously misrepresented in her book, I didn’t want to get burned again on this one. It did seem rather rude to email Ms. Sanders and say “could you please send me a list of your references so I can make sure you’re legit before I ask you to interview with me,” so I verified the sources I could, and was able to cross-reference many of them because there haven’t been *that many* studies done of only children, and the other two books I read as well referenced many of them.

Lauren Sandler gives passing mention to a study that was published in 1895 conducted by one E.W. Bohannon that I think lays such an incredible foundation for what seems to be a pervasive myth of the deficiencies of only children that I want to tell you quite a bit more about it than she did. So our Professor Bohannon posted a notice somewhere, he doesn’t say where, for respondents to think about peculiar and exceptional children they might have known in childhood, whether any of their friends fit the bill, if they’re teachers or professors then to ask their students what kind of peculiar and exceptional children they know, and finally recount the characteristics of any exceptional children “you ever read of, whether fact or fiction.” Professor Bohannon received descriptions of 1,045 children, fully 850 of them from a teacher at a state school in Trenton. Categories of peculiar or exceptional children include the heavy, the tall, the small, the strong, the weak, the silent, the loquacious, and, of course, the only child. 45 of the cases are explicitly stated to be of this class, and I’ll quote the description of one of them which is representative of the whole: “Male, 10 years old. Light (we assume they mean light-skinned.) Selfish, spoiled, and ill-natured. Is so selfish that children of his own age will not play with him. Always wants his own way and plays with children much younger than himself. Very ugly to them unless they allow him his own play in everything. Children at school will very seldom play with him. Is delicate. Father’s mother not selfish.” The commentary goes on to say that “46 of the 1045 cases are explicitly stated to be of this class, while there are a number of others that obviously are (although professor Bohannon doesn’t say how he knows this). Thus one out of twenty of the entire number is an “only child” — a number entirely out of proportion to that found among children generally. The only child in a family is therefore very likely to be “peculiar and exceptional.”

Now I suppose it goes without saying that the quality of this study was pretty low; the recruitment methodology was suspect in the extreme, since it relies on what individuals know and/or remember about the characteristics of other individuals as well as fictional characters. Professor Bohannon made no attempt at all to obtain a sample that even came anywhere close to being representative, so the idea I want to leave you with here could be boiled down to the new title that we’re going to bestow on this article: “Crappy study finds only children suck.” Unfortunately, once applied, the label stuck. Lauren Sandler goes on to quote a variety of publications that I wasn’t able to get my hands on, including The Guide to Good Manners for Kids, published in 1926, which said that a parents’ chief concern is that an only child is bound to be a “spoiled child” with apparently shameful behavior. The 1927 book “Child Guidance” says that “the only child is greatly handicapped. He cannot be expected to go through life with the same capacity for adjustment that the child reared in the family with other children has.” The book says that only children are handicapped because of their lack of contact with other children and because they have to constantly compete with adults. “The only way in which he can exceed these adults is in infantile behavior. He can scream, louder than they can. He can throw himself on the floor.” Needless to say, none of these works could be described as rigorous or scientific or even referenced in any way, shape, or form.

The best early study was conducted by Norman Fenton of the Whittier State School in California in 1928, who cites Bohannon’s work as well as both of the other books that Lauren Sandler quotes (she actually lifts Fenton’s quotes from these books), as well as an assortment of other articles and books which all have essentially the same message. So Fenton decided to try to test whether only children really are different from children with siblings by studying a group of children aged between the kindergarten and sixth grade years, and two groups of university students, with both only children and children with siblings in each group. Two teachers who had known each child for at least one semester rated each child on a series of twelve scales including self-confidence, generosity, sociability, obedience, and truthfulness. Fenton’s conclusions are striking enough that I’m going to quote him: “It is noted that there is considerable overlapping in the teacher’s ratings of the two groups of the children studied, ranging from 73.1% to 90% or more (and, as a side note, when Fenton says “overlapping” he means that “the two groups are essentially the same.”). In generosity and sociability, two traits in which in ordinary accounts only children are supposed to be especially inferior, the overlapping is considerable — 90% or more.” On the other characteristics that he studied, the overlap between only children and children with siblings varied between 80% and 90%, with only children being very slightly more likely to be more self-confident, more aggressive and insist upon having their own way, be more optimistic, be more self-assured, higher in originality, and be slightly less obedient. But again, the idea I want you to take away from this is that the overall differences between children with siblings and children without are very small.

Now keep in mind that Fenton’s research was published in 1928, just a year before the Great Depression began, and just a few years later only children went from being something of an oddity to being 30% of the total number of homes with children. Despite the sudden “normalcy” of only children, the dual narratives had been established — study after study after study found very few differences between only children and children with siblings, while the popular press reported — and the general public opinion believed — that only children faced a serious disadvantage in life, that the “the usual overattention of a single child” was responsible for leading an English man to shoot 31 people before killing himself in 1987 and, of course, that the entire generation of only children born under China’s one-child policy were “indulgent, selfish, introverted, unconcerned, and unable to care for themselves.”

So what’s the status of the research right now? Well, it turns out that research on only children was quite a hot topic in the 1980s and interest has rather cooled off since then, so the data isn’t the freshest, but the story remains much the same.

Professor Toni Falbo has conducted and analyzed much of the research on this topic; her first paper appeared in the Journal of Individual Psychology in 1977 and in 2012 she revisited the topic with an update. She reports that the clearest findings are related to intellectual abilities, with preadolescent only children scoring higher on academic tests than children with siblings, the difference being greatest when you’re looking at only children contrasted with children with many siblings. But apparently this difference evens out somewhat by the time the children reach adolescence, with only children still out-scoring children from many families, but about the same as children from two-child families.

A variety of studies have reported conflicting findings on interpersonal skills, with only children scoring better on likeability in some studies, worse in others, and the same as children with siblings in still others.

Professor Falbo conducted three meta analyses of other studies on only children. The technique she used combines the quantitative data that are generated by many other researchers into a single statistic called an “effect size,” which can be evaluated in terms of its size, statistical significance, and direction. She combined the data from 39 studies that looked at a child’s adjustment (so, characteristics like self-esteem and anxiety), 30 studies on sociability, and 30 studies on character (things like leadership), comparing only children to children with siblings. The differences in adjustment and sociability were (and I quote) “not statistically different from zero,” which means that when you add up all these studies with conflicting findings the overall result is that there is no difference between the adjustment and sociability of only children from children with siblings. Professor Falbo found this finding to be pretty remarkable because we assume that growing up with siblings is essential for children to acquire the skills they need for successful adjustment and social interactions with others outside the home. On the topic of character, only children had an advantage, particularly when compared to children from large families.

When Professor Falbo looked at 16 characteristics related to achievement and intelligence, only children were essentially the same as children with siblings on 14 of the 16 characteristics they studied. The only two that were different were achievement motivation and self-esteem, and the only children came out ahead on both counts, although the difference was small. Only children also had greater verbal abilities when compared with peers from larger families, and particularly the younger members of those families. Two professors who conducted a study on this topic hypothesized that the early intellectual capacity of only children is a result of the increased amount of time the children spend interacting with adults, using sophisticated vocabulary rather than the vocabulary of young children, which sets them on higher educational tracks early in their lives. I couldn’t find an explanation as to why children with siblings tend to catch up with the only children by adolescence. But by late adolescence a different mechanism takes over — families with just one child can funnel a lot more financial resources to that child’s education, so only children tend to achieve more years of education, which leads to greater occupational prestige, something which is important in American culture. I haven’t been able to find any data showing that only children are ultimately happier or lead more fulfilling lives as a result of this increased status, and I might argue that it’s not inconceivable that the parental pressure on the only child to “be all they can be” could actually be responsible for less happiness and less fulfilling lives in the long run.

Finally, Professor Falbo looked at the data from 19 studies of parent-child relations, which found a small but statistically significant effect showing that only children have better relationships with their parents than children with siblings, which she hypothesizes may compensate in terms of providing the social interaction that children from larger families get from their siblings.

Professor Falbo has also done some research in China, and has looked at research that others have done in China as well, on one-child families. Contrary to the popular assumption that the entire current generation of Chinese only children would grow up to be egocentric “Little Emperors” with the full attention of two parents and four grandparents, the reality has been rather more nuanced. One study from 1986 did find that only children in Beijing were low in independent thinking, self-control, cooperation, peer prestige, and persistence, and high in frustration proneness and egocentrism, but several other studies found no difference between only children and those of their peers with siblings. But more recent studies have noted the many different pressures on Chinese children — some of which drive them away from traditional attitudes and toward the pursuit of success in a market-driven economy, and some of which push them toward meeting the traditional Chinese obligations of family respect and support. The Chinese government promotes the message that only children are supposed to be the vanguard of Chinese modernization, gaining skills which their parents don’t have and in many cases don’t know how to help their children acquire them. Given that many parents still want their children to show traditional virtues, in direct conflict with the government’s goals, it’s no wonder that the popular attitude toward only children is a negative one. Gradually attitudes have shifted, and many parents today report that even when they have an opportunity to have another child they won’t do it, primarily because they can’t afford to.

A poll conducted in the U.S. around 2004 found that only 3% of Americans think that one child is the ideal family size, and an important reason that many people give for their desire to have a second child is to prevent their firstborn from being an only child. The stereotypes about only children aren’t limited to the U.S., though — they also exist in my home country of Great Britain, Korea, the Netherlands and, as we’ve already discussed, China. A researcher by the name of Adriean Mancillas collected and analyzed several studies that assessed the stereotypes associated with only children. One study found that college students thought that only children were “the most academic and spoiled and the least likeable.” Another used the same methodology to test adults, who rated only children as spoiled, the least likeable, and the most academic, although parents of only children rated hypothetical only children as being worse than their own actual only child — the equivalent of saying “my child is lovely; it’s yours that are horrible.” Another study found that only children themselves ranked only children more negatively than children with siblings. Even counselors and psychologists hold the stereotype, with a hypothetical only child being described as being “particularly likely to experience problems.” Given these findings, I’m sort of surprised that only children fare as well as they do — if everyone tells you you’re selfish and spoiled and unlikeable, and as an only child you even tell yourself that only children are selfish and spoiled and unlikeable, and some researchers believe it’s possible that people’s beliefs about only children could produce differences in their expectations for their own children and for other people’s children, which could lead to actual differences developing in those children.

The implications of these stereotypes for our society are really profound. The fact that nearly everyone — even trained professionals — think that only children have more negative characteristics than children with siblings may result in decisions being made about a child’s educational or clinical needs based on a stereotype rather than on the child’s actual needs. And that millions of parents have a second child simply to spare their firstborn from being an only child puts untold stress on these families — having more children than one wants or can manage has been shown to put the children at greater risk for abuse and pathological development.

So how do only children turn out as adults? One set of researchers named Roberts and Blanton did in-depth interviews with twenty young adults who had been only children. Overall, they were thankful for the absence of sharing, fighting, and competing with siblings, as well as not having to share parental resources and attention. They valued and enjoyed time spent alone, and felt that being an only child facilitated creative and imaginary play in their childhood. Their parents didn’t have to spread financial resources across multiple children so the children were able to engage in activities that interested them. They also reported having close relationships with their parents and that they had been more mature at a younger age than their peers. Another study found that only children have a greater degree of personal responsibility than do children with siblings — they believe that they are responsible for their successes and failures rather than these things being the result of external factors outside their control. This has great implications for only children’s motivation to succeed, since believing you control the factors that determine what happens in your life is a key indicator for higher levels of achievement. On the flip-side, researchers note that only children may not be as able or willing to accept help from others, and so may experience higher levels of stress than children with siblings. Another study that compared adults who had been only children and those with siblings living in Boston found that there was a considerable overrepresentation in the sample of only children of men and women who would be considered “successful” in our society.

So overall, that’s certainly a lot of positive outcomes for only children! There were some more negative ones as well. Although the majority of the (admittedly small) sample size of respondents weren’t upset about their lack of siblings, some wished they had had one when they were younger who could have shared the experience of being in the family and also acted as a confidante. Especially when there are two parents in the home and only one child, there can be no place for the child to hide when they need a break, as other siblings take some of the attention off each other throughout the day. Only children benefit from their generally good relationships with their parents, but if the parents feel any stress at the thought of their child being their only shot to get parenting right, and make sure that kid gets into the best college and show the rest of the family that we’re good parents, that can result in an awful lot of pressure on the child. Some of the interviewees reported feeling a great deal of pressure to succeed, much like the Chinese only children did, and another study has found that adolescent female only children report less life satisfaction and lower self-esteem than their peers with siblings when their fathers were unemployed, perhaps because only children are more likely to be attuned to what’s going on in their parents’ lives than children with siblings.

Some of the only children regretted not being aunts or uncles, and felt pressure to have children because it was their parents’ only shot at being grandparents.

In addition to not wanting their firstborn to experience childhood as a singleton, many parents also don’t want that child to experience their own old age as a singleton. This was a definite concern among the young adults that Roberts and Blanton, several of whom were anxious about being the sole caretaker for aging parents, and also about being the sole survivor in the family after their parents died. Having siblings isn’t any guarantee that parental support will be more evenly spread, though, as research indicates that one sibling usually ends up shouldering the vast majority of the burden of caring for aging parents — but at least there’s a chance to spread some of the load.

So where does this leave the parents of only children? Well, for one, I’d say if you’re feeling guilty about only having one child, stop feeling guilty for only having one child! There’s simply no evidence that, overall, only children experience any negative implications as a result of being an only child and in fact they are likely to do very well on tests and in school because of their larger exposure to adult-level thoughts and vocabulary. So, please, relax and stop worrying! (I always love it when I get to tell parents that.) But there are some things to watch out for, particularly in yourself as a parent. Have a good think about your opinions on only children and if you find negative thoughts, there, just hit ‘replay’ on this episode and listen to it again. Since a majority of people do seem to hold negative stereotypes about only children you may find you have some yourself, and since it is possible that your negative thoughts about your child could actually impact your child’s outcomes, you should do what you can to at least hold a neutral viewpoint about only children. If you wish you did have another child, you may find that the child you have comes to resent being an only child and asks you — often repeatedly and insistently- for a sibling. And try not to indulge your child too much just because he or she is your only one — which feeds into the stereotype of the spoiled child and can set up conflicts in the child’s self-esteem when they feel like they don’t deserve all the gifts you’re giving them. Plenty of research shows that marital relationships become more strained with each added child, so every once in a while you can leave your singleton with a friend or family member and take a break just the two of you, an opportunity that is much harder for parents of multiples to organize.

The second thing to keep in mind is to be sure to give your only child a childhood. Your singleton will probably end up spending quite a lot of time around adults, so do make sure they also get time with younger people as well (even if they aren’t children of *exactly* their age) so they learn how to negotiate social situations among their peers. If you want to give your child more of a sense of being part of a large family, you can become more ‘like family’ with a group of friends or neighbors. My husband’s family were immigrants and they have a very large extended group who aren’t related to each other and yet who spend every holiday — and many non-holidays in between — together. The “cousins” aren’t related to each other in any way, and yet they look out for each other as if they were.

The third thing you can do is to not put too much pressure on your only child. I think this is something that is deeply embedded in a person’s culture; certainly in traditional Chinese culture there is a great deal of pressure to conform to societal expectations — as well as the government’s pressure for the current generation of only children to transform the country into a world power — whereas here we put more focus on individual success. But just be aware, as you shine that bright lamp of parental approval on the activities and qualities that you value, that your child probably has feelings about what activities and qualities they value and you might consider allowing those to be expressed to the extent that is appropriate in your culture. Also be cautious of how much your child picks up on your moods — particularly when it leads your child to team up with either parent against the other one, which isn’t great for the excluded adult, the child, or even the parent that might be trying to curry favor with the child. Try not to let your own emotional well-being get too caught up in your child’s achievement of things you think are important, and try not to be disappointed if your child isn’t *just like you.*

And, finally, I think the parents of only children are even more responsible than the parents of siblings to get their effects in order for later in life. So set up living wills and also regular wills that provide for your child’s well-being while they’re still a minor, and try to have both financial and medical provisions in place as you get older so your child isn’t unduly emotionally or financially burdened with taking care of you.

And if we want to end on a bit of a self-righteous note, we should look no further than the environmentalist Bill McKibben’s book Maybe One, which reminds us that the average American uses twenty times as much energy as a Costa Rican, fifty times that of a Madagascan, and seventy times that of a Bangladeshi. In a year we use three hundred times the amount of energy as a Malian, but because we live so much longer it’s actually about five hundred times as much by the time we die. The childless among us are, of course, pulling more than their share of the weight in reducing environmental impacts (and research shows they are, on average, happier than parents as well). But those of us with only one child are doing our bit to help keep the world the kind of place that our children will actually want to — and be able to — live on.

And on that cheerful note, you can find all the references for today’s episode at yourparentingmojo.com/only


Originally published at Your Parenting Mojo.

Jen Lumanlan

Written by

M.S. (Psychology: Child Development); M.Ed., host Your Parenting Mojo podcast (YourParentingMojo.com): turning scientific research into useful tools for parents