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As an only child (and the child of an only child), I’m aware of the reputation that precedes me. Spoiled, selfish, and antisocial are just a few adjectives usually associated with “onlys.”
When the question of siblings comes up, I usually find myself going on the defensive: “I’m an only child. But I’m not awful, I swear!”
While I maintain I’m just as “normal” as anyone else (whatever the hell that means), growing up as an only child definitely molded my personality and behavior in certain ways.
I can thank my sibling-free status for some positive qualities, such as being studious and self-motivated, as well as some less desirable character traits, such as being very sensitive and a dedicated Type-A personality. Everyone’s home environment helps shape them, siblings or otherwise (and genetics play a role too).
But the idea that only children are automatically bizarre or bratty just because we don’t have siblings is bullsh*t.
Single-child families have become increasingly common. Going into the new millennium, around 17 percent of women aged 40 to 44 years in the United States had only ever had one child. This was up from 9.6 percent in 1980.
So on behalf of only kids everywhere, allow me to silence the stereotypes and share some home truths about a home without siblings.
I’m sure these apply to some people, but generalizations are bizarre, hurtful, and offensive.
1. We’re not that weird
The myth of the “peculiar” only child originated in 1895, when EW Bohannon, 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.”
This stereotype has stuck around for more than 100 years, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. One study from 2008 found that children with siblings have better relationships with their peers at kindergarten age.
However, other researchers have rebutted this, including a study of 13,466 11- to 18-year-old children that found people were just as likely to include only children in their peer group as they were children with siblings.
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 PhD, writes in The Case for the Only Child, a wide base of research shows “singletons are no more spoiled than the overall population.”
But children nowadays run the risk of rampant materialism however many siblings they have. 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’re not loners
Even if I’m not a social butterfly, 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. We have just as many friends as anyone else. We just have to look outside the home to find them.
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 quasi-substitutes.
Also, siblings can be overrated — especially if you end up lumped with a difficult one.
Even though stereotypes are inaccurate and harmful, there are some ways that only-child-dom can have an influence on our development. It doesn’t make us the monsters you might think.
4. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves
It wasn’t all external pressure from my family. I internalized a lot of pressure to succeed and am still very self-motivated to live up to high standards.
Only children can “push themselves pretty hard,” as psychologist Carl Pickhardt PhD, 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: Earlier research shows that only children do not have an intellectual disadvantage compared to children with siblings and may even have the edge on children from large families.
They may also score higher on IQ tests.
5. We often 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 am quite particular.
This might be a result of several factors, such as genes and general personality, but being an only sibling may have played a role in this.
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 rearranging 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.
If you find bossy people annoying — well, annoying people can be great in certain situations, so count your blessings that we’re around.
6. 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.
I’m not sure whether most other only children experience this, but it’s been a notable part of my development.
(Adult-child relationships can be weird — mothers can become jealous and resentful of their daughters, for example — but I cherish my ability to be friends with anyone, regardless of age.)
7. We can be averse to conflict
The aforementioned Dr. Pickhardt wrote on Psychology Today that only children tend to be conflict-averse, which makes total sense to me.
Not that anyone really likes to fight, but arguments among friends, significant others, or colleagues make me super uncomfortable.
I never had to deal with daily screaming matches among siblings, so I’m not used to confrontation and tend to take it personally when it’s often down to a range of other factors.
It’s taken time to realize that conflict can help support growth and connection.
8. We can be 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 the feelings of others, and I always try to think about how my actions may make others feel.
This runs at odds to the misconception that only children are automatically “spoiled” or “selfish,” even though some of us no doubt end up that way — we’re humans, and humans sometimes suck.
They just don’t *only* suck because they have no siblings.
9. We tend to 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 and reluctant 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 wrote on Psychology Today.
10. We may 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.
Here’s a piece on socializing and why it’s not always the answer.
11. We worry about our parents getting older
Sorry to get morbid for a second, but it’s pretty scary to face being the sole caregiver 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. 😱
We have a guide to coping with grief and anxiety here.
12. 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. We put together a guide to working out whether you have a normal relationship with your parents.
You may be another only child, thinking “none of this applies to me” — and that’s entirely the point.
People have limited views on only children that have gone unchallenged for a long enough time. We don’t all function the same way. Whichever developmental experiences we may miss out on from having siblings in the home, we can find from our peer group.
We have different practical considerations, such as who will look after our parents when they’re older or if they get sick — but that’s our consideration to bear, not that of the people judging us.
No family is drama-free, however many siblings you have. We all have to cope in different ways and develop different personal attributes as a result.
Locke is a health and wellness writer with a passion for avocado toast, morning yoga, and sunset runs. She grew up in Florida, graduated from the University of Virginia, and strongly believes there’s nothing sunshine—or a glass of wine—can’t fix.