As an only child (and the child of an only child), I’m aware of my bad reputation. Spoiled, selfish, and antisocial are just a few adjectives usually associated with “onlys.” And l admit that when the question of siblings comes up, I go on the defensive: “I’m an only child, but I’m not weird, I swear!”
While I maintain I’m just as “normal” as anyone else, growing up as an only child definitely molded my personality and behavior in certain ways. I can thank my sibling-free status for some super-positive qualities (studious, self-motivated), as well as some less-than-great character traits (sensitive, Type A). But the idea that only children are automatically bizarre or bratty just because we don’t have siblings? That’s just BS.
Single-child families have become increasingly common (making up about 20 percent of American families), so it’s likely you’ve worked with, are friends with, or maybe even dated an only child. So on behalf of onlys everywhere, I want to silence the stereotypes and share some truths about us.
1. We’re not that weird.
The myth of the “peculiar” only child originated in the late 19th century, when a psychologist surveyed more than 1,000 kids (only 46 of whom were only children) and deemed sibling-free children more likely to be “ugly, poorly behaved, and stupid.” Ouch. Unforunately, this stereotype has stuck around for more than 100 years, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary—including a large study that found only children have no disadvantage when it comes to social skills. Let’s be real: Everyone has odd traits and habits, but growing up sans siblings doesn’t make you any more (or less) weird.
2. We’re not spoiled brats.
Of course there are always outliers, but as Susan Newman, Ph.D. writes in The Case for the Only Child, a large amount of research shows “singletons are no more spoiled than the overall population.” Which isn’t to say we’re not any less materialistic than others—nowadays, most parents (59 percent according to one poll) admit to spoiling their kids, regardless of how many they have. As Newman points out, spoiling “is a parenting problem not cured by having two children instead of one.” Maybe I did receive a few more Christmas presents than I would’ve if I had siblings, but I’m glad my parents raised me to be grateful, gracious, and not a brat.
3. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves.
It wasn’t all external pressure from my family. I internalized a lot of it and am still very self-motivated to live up to high standards. Only children can “push themselves pretty hard,” as psychologist Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., author of The Future of Your Only Child, told Vice, and “they can be pretty critical when they don’t do as well as they like.” (I still remember beating myself up about a B- I got in chemistry.) The good part? The pressure pays off: Research shows only children have an intellectual advantage and score higher on IQ tests.
4. We like to do things our own way.
Yes, I know how to share—food, my home, and my clothes. But I’m not going to lie; I’m particular. I like the way I’ve organized my kitchen, bathroom, and color-coded closet, and I have to make an effort not to be a control freak outside of my home. I didn’t grow up with siblings barging into my room and messing with my stuff, so I’m not used to people re-arranging my kitchen cabinets or shuffling through my files at work. I know this can come across as slightly bossy, but when it comes to projects at work or school, it can be a great thing: I’ll always take the lead! And I’ll often do more than my fair share so I can see things through.
5. We get along well with adults and authority figures.
While other kids were watching TV with their siblings during dinner parties, I was sitting at the table talking with my parents’ friends. As a result of socializing with older people from a young age, I grew up being very comfortable around adults, which has helped me out a lot in school and the working world. As Pickhardt told Vice, only children tend to be “comfortable dealing with adult authorities” and more obedient, since we see ourselves on a similar level as authority figures.
6. We’re not loners…
Even if I’m not a social butterfly (only children tend not to be), I had lots of friends growing up, and I have lots of friends today. I was really lucky to grow up in a neighborhood full of big families, so I could always find someone to ride bikes or play in the park with. And research confirms that only children have just as many friends as anyone else. In fact, I think being an only child helped me focus even more on friendship. Since I don’t have siblings, I’ve worked hard to develop and maintain close friends as sort-of substitutes.
7. …but we do need alone time.
All that said, I also like to be by myself. It’s a classic introvert trait, but I think my love for alone time also stems from growing up as an only child. I spent lots of time in my room—reading, drawing, playing with stuffed animals. (Another perk: We have great imaginations!) Now I still treasure my alone time as a way to regain energy and spark creativity. While being comfortable being alone is a positive thing, the only downside is that I have to explain to friends and significant others that it’s not personal—I just like having a couple hours to myself on weekends to relax and recharge.
8. We don’t like conflict.
While researching this article, I read that only children tend to be conflict-averse, which makes total sense. Not that anyone really likes to fight, but arguments among friends, with S.O.s, or at work make me super uncomfortable. Because I never had to deal with daily screaming matches among siblings, I’m not used to confrontation and tend to take it personally.
9. We’re highly sensitive.
Only children tend to be very in touch with their ~feelings.~ Having never had siblings to tease me, I can overreact when I perceive people as critical, angry, or distant in personal relationships. And sometimes I perceive them being that way when they’re actually not. On the plus side, my sensitivity also makes me more considerate toward others’ feelings, and I always try to think about how my actions may make others feel.
10. We like our privacy.
In today’s sharing-centric world, it’s normal for people to post every minute detail of their daily lives. But I still feel a little sheepish before I post a photo on Instagram or send a Tweet, and now I know why: Only children tend to “feel socially self-conscious, and value privacy, from growing up being the sole focus of unrelenting parental scrutiny,” Pickhardt writes on Psychology Today. Ah, it all makes sense: My life is already under a microscope at home; I don’t need it picked apart on social media too.
11. We get shy in large groups.
I love chatting with people one-on-one, and sometimes, after enough wine, I can be one of the most outgoing people at a party. But as an only child, I can get super quiet in a huge group, especially if I don’t know the people really well. I prefer hanging out in groups of three or four; more people can cause me to hang back. So on behalf of all only children, please don’t mistake our shyness for snobbiness! We’re just not used to all that noise.
12. We worry about our parents getting older.
Sorry to get morbid, but it’s pretty scary to face being the sole person responsible for your parents as they get older. I’m fortunate I don’t have to deal with it yet, but I already lose sleep thinking about it. Siblings can share the emotional weight of a parent’s death, as well as the literal weight of dealing with their belongings and estate. As an only child, it all comes down to me. [Insert freaked-out emoji here.]
13. We have a unique family dynamic.
A friend who recently visited me at home marveled at how much attention I still get from my parents. Yes, it can be intense. But I wouldn’t trade my super-close relationship with my parents for anything. They’ve taught me so much about life and myself, they know (almost) everything about me, and I know a ton about them—for better or worse. It can be tough when disagreements arise, and there’s no one else in the room to diffuse the tension (or take the blame), but the bottom line? I wouldn’t want it any other way.