Are Only Children Doomed to Be Selfish and Socially Awkward?

Only children: Selfish and lonely, or precocious and self-confident? Over the past 100 years, scientists and psychologists have struggled to decide whether growing up without siblings is a blessing or a curse.
Are Only Children Doomed to Be Selfish and Socially Awkward?

Back in high school, I read an article in TIME about the significance of birth order among siblings. It was so thought provoking that I ended up writing my college admissions essay about how my family’s birth order affected my personality and relationships throughout life. Are my amazing grammar skills and rugged good looks due to my own personality, or are they a result of being the oldest sibling? 

But what about people who can’t turn to birth order for clues about their character? Single or only children—those who grow up without siblings—are exempt from speculation about how birth order influences personality. What are the consequences, both positive and negative, of being a sibling-free child? Does who we’re raised with even influence our adulthood? Read to learn why one is (or isn’t) the loneliest number.

The Only Girl (or Boy) in the World—Why It Matters

Think about only children for a moment. What comes to mind? According to stereotypes, kids without siblings are purportedly lonely, spoiled, precocious, selfish, headstrong, bad at making friends, and generally bratty.

Judgments about sibling-less children have been embedded in American society for decades. Granville Stanley Hall, an American psychologist and researcher, first explored how only children were “different” back in 1895. Hall sent out a survey for educators and physicians to describe unusual children, and the results were published by his protégée, E.W. Bohannon, in 1896. Bohannon’s “A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children” concluded that only children (who made up 46 of the 1,045 children surveyed) were more likely to be peculiar, ugly, poorly behaved, and stupid. It's important to note that in the 19th century having many children was the norm, while only children were fairly rare. Greatist Expert Dr. Mark Banschick explains that families with only one child were more likely to be dysfunctional due to health (both physical and mental) issues, which could have a negative effect on raising children. Regardless of rationale, Hall and Bohannon's work effectively created the myth of the socially inept and bratty only child.

However, studies over the last few decades have begun to turn this century-old stereotype on its head. Research within the past twenty years has shown single children are not necessarily worse off for growing up without siblings—in fact, they might actually benefit from their parents’ undivided attention and financial resources.

All for One, One for All—The Answer/Debate

If G.S. Hall and his students are rolling in their graves, it’s largely due to University of Texas professor Toni Falbo and her staggering body of work involving siblings, familial relationships, and social development. Since the 1970s, Falbo has methodically worked to reverse stereotypes about children without siblings. In 1988, Falbo and co-researcher Denise Polit tackled an enormous project: They analyzed 115 studies pertaining to children and families from 1925 to 1988 from the United States and Canada, including children from all racial, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds. At the end of this review, they determined that single children are not actually selfish, emotionally stunted freakazoids. In fact, only children often scored higher for self-esteem and academic achievement than peers who grow up in more crowded households. Falbo and Polit’s findings opened the door for scientists and researchers to challenge the myth of the only child. 

Before Falbo and Polit had even published their results, though, a 1982 study found kids who live with a smaller number of children and a higher number of adults tend to experience greater intellectual development and self-confidence China and the one-child family. The one-child family in the United States: research issues and results. Falbo T. Studies in Family Planning. 1982 Jun-Jul; 13(6-7):212-5.. This research was backed up in 2004 by a study claiming that as adolescents, only children are higher achieving and less likely to drink underage than kids with siblings Behavioral characteristics of the only child vs first-born and children with siblings. Tavares MB, Fuchs FC, Diligenti F, de Abreu JR, Rohde LA, Fuchs SC. Faculdade de Medicina, Universidade do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, RS, Brasil. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria. 2004 March; 26(1):17-23.. Meanwhile, many new studies credit parenting style, not the number of children in a family, as the reason for poorly adjusted, spoiled, or unsociable kids Moral values of only and sibling children in China. Shen J, Yuan BJ. Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, USA. The Journal of Psychology. 1999 January;133(1):115-24..

Still, scientists aren’t willing to totally give up the idea that only children miss out on early socialization. Instead, new research reconciles old ideas with new ones: Current studies have found the gap in social skills between single children and those from large families is much smaller than previously thought, and it shrinks quickly with age Growing up without siblings and adult sociability behaviors. Trent K, Spitze GD. Department of Sociology and Center for Social and Demographic Analysis, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, NY, USA. The Journal of Family Issues. 2011 March 8; 32(9):1178-1204.. This should come as no surprise, because lacking siblings is hardly synonymous with lacking companions. Plus, families with just one rug rat are more likely to spend time and money on that kiddo’s development via extracurricular classes, sports, and activities with other kids

It’s also worth noting that having brothers and sisters isn’t all board games and rainbows. Parents with a large brood are forced to split their time, attention, and money amongst kids, sometimes leaving a child feeling neglected or less favored. Garden-variety sibling rivalry and less-common sibling bullying can be just as harmful as peer bullying, potentially leading to behavioral and emotional problems down the road Bullying among siblings. Wolke D, Skew AJ. Department of Psychology, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health. 2012; 24(1):17-25.. In fact, the research suggests being bullied by siblings as a kid has more of an effect on adult mental health than growing up without brothers or sisters. In other words, the mere fact of having siblings is hardly a guarantee of greater socialization down the road.

Families of the Future—The Takeaway

Before proclaiming that every child should be an only child, let’s take a step back and look at the statistics. Conceptions about sibling-free children are changing, but so are demographics. According to Dr. Banschick, in the past few decades there has been a dramatic social shift deemphasizing marriage and family and stressing the importance of developing the self. Considering that young people are more focused on "the only" (as in, themselves), it's no surprise that the number of families with "onlies" is skyrocketing.  

In 2010, roughly 19 percent of families in the United States (over 15 million) had just one child. And that number is only increasing as adults marry older, focus on their careers, and delay having children for financial reasons. The American birth rate plummeted after the economic recession of 2008, and it hasn’t perked back up since. The current birth rate (1.9 percent, or slightly less than the 2.1 replacement rate) indicates fewer women are having children, and those who do are having fewer than many women did in the past.

With nearly a fifth of our country’s children coming of age as the sole progeny of their families, only children are more common than ever. Perhaps the studies that validate kids who grow up without siblings are less about science, and more about comfort. In the 1890s, Hall and Bohannon accounted for anomalous only children by claiming that they were misbehaved freaks of nature. In the 21st century, we are doing the opposite—validating only children because they've become so common. With the country’s shrinking birth rate, maybe we need to see the future generation as smart, socially developed, and empathetic instead of “ugly, poorly behaved, and stupid.”

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