Is Only Child Syndrome Real? Why You Needn’t Worry

A chid running through a field with a kite.

While some of us have been thinking about the number of kids we want for ages now, others have only really considered it when they began having them. And we obviously want the best for our child and for them to grow up in an environment that gives them the opportunity to develop to their greatest potential.

While nutrition and education are obvious examples, the number of children is a less obvious consideration.

But while it might not be obvious at first, we’ve all heard the stereotypes of single children. Snobbish, self-centered, less outgoing, and more difficult to date later in life. All things that, as a parent, you want to do everything in your power to avoid. So, in light of this stereotype, many people choose to avoid the one-child route, opting for at least 2 or more.

However, as with most things, stereotypes don’t usually pan out in the real world and the experts can back this up.

We’ll get into some of the research, expert opinions, and benefits of being a single child down below. But if there’s one thing to take away from all of this, it’s that being a single child is absolutely fine.

The Origins and History

The phrase “only child syndrome” has gone by many names, and the “logic” of it makes many people believe that it’s been a thing or idea forever—or at least a very long time.

As you might’ve guessed, that’s not true.

The only child syndrome theory came into being in the late 19th century in a paper named “A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children” by E.W. Bohannon and G. Stanley Hall from Clark University. This study is the source of the widespread mythos around the only child.

And it’s no surprise, at least if you keep in mind the language that was used.

Hall and Bohannon went as far as to say that being an only child was a “disease in itself”—strong words that don’t leave much room for interpretation. How did they come to this conclusion?

They used the results of a questionnaire (a new method for collecting data back then), asking 200 participants a series of questions. One of the questions in this study asked if the participant knew of any disadvantages or peculiarities in any only children they knew. How many answered with an affirmative response? 196.

And what were these peculiarities that the participants responded in? First and foremost, “excessively spoiled”.

But not only did the researchers’ colleagues agree with them during the time, but it was also widely accepted within society. During this era, middle-class families were having fewer children and there was a general fear that the “lower classes” would soon swamp the gene pool with their, alleged, inferior genetics.

You’re probably starting to see the issues around a study like this.

Furthermore, there was a widely held belief in the early 20th century that only children would grow up to be hypersensitive. The thinking was that if both parents concentrated all their worries onto one child, the child would grow up to have weak nerves, and potentially be a hypochondriac.

Only children are thought to be more selfish, though this trait is highly debated.

(Alleged) Characteristics of Only Child Syndrome

So, what are the details surrounding classic only child syndrome? What did Bohannon and Hall come up with, in the end? While in this day and age the theory sounds more and more ridiculous with every passing year, there is a certain (bad) logic behind these assumptions.

Foremost was the belief that only children would grow up to be selfish. This is because the child would receive the undivided attention of both parents, and essentially get whatever they want—without having to share with a sibling.

The theory also states that only children suffered from a lack of interaction with peers, namely, their potential siblings. This could not only lead to loneliness and anti-social tendencies, but it could also extend into adulthood in the form of not getting along with co-workers and displays of hypersensitivity. These social skills needed to be learned at an early age.

You may have already made the connection, but only child syndrome is a close cousin of birth order theories. We all know the stereotypes: the firstborn is the quiet studious type, the middle (ignored) children are people-pleasers and easygoing, while the youngest are the outgoing and self-centered ones. Much like only child syndrome, child order theory is debatable at best.

Issues with the Original Study

Not to mention the problems with deriving such data from a single questionnaire, but the original study done by the two researchers also faced a major problem that most people don’t have today.

It was, first and foremost, based in a rural society in which little socialization (or less) took place outside of the home. To get anywhere took a much longer time than these days, and there was just no way for children to get to know other people in some cases. Especially in the days when children were meant to work on the homestead.

Furthermore, as you may have guessed, the study has been disproven by many others. It has continued to be a topic of research, but most experts agree that there aren’t any legitimate aspects of the original study. Additionally, there is little (if any) difference between single children and multi-children families.

But we’ll look further into some studies down below.

Only Children in the Modern Era

With the continuously changing landscape of families and their makeup over the past several decades, single-child households have seen large growth.

In the United States, single-child families were at about 10 million in 1972. Jumping forward to 2018, and we now have 15 million families like these. An increase of 1.5x. What’s more, is that this has become the largest growing family demographic today. But what’s spurred on this change?

For one, it follows a much longer trend of having fewer and fewer children, at least in developed countries. But perhaps more importantly, couples are having children at later and later dates. Not only does this leave less time to have children, but it also paves the way for potential fertility issues later in life.

And lastly, there’s also the changing cultural opinion on having one child.

We can see that the original study was bathed in prejudice—not just in terms of having children, but also class. There’s been a growing acceptance of having a single child, and one of the reasons this acceptance has grown is because studies like the original have been shown to be extremely problematic with results that can be effectively written off.

Not to mention the many studies which have come since then, most showing that there is little evidence of differences between children coming from these two different types of households—not to mention that most of these purported differences are actually positives.

What the Research Says

In a data-driven society, research is king, and theories live or die based on what we find. Saying that, it’s important to keep in mind that the original was “research” as well. Not to say that it was good research, but it constituted research during the time. Just as modern studies are good research in modern times. It’s important to keep in mind that things are always changing.

Nevertheless, there have been countless studies done on only child syndrome since the first by Bohannon and Hall, and most of them have shown that there are no serious differences between children from these two different types of homes. And many of the studies that have shown this to be true, have been more closely examined and found to be problematic with their methodology.

By far the most prominent opponent of single child syndrome has been Dr. Toni Falbo from The University of Texas at Austin.

Her seminal 1986 study looked at over 200 different studies on the topic of single child syndrome, where she tried to discern if there was any difference. Her conclusion was that children with siblings and children without siblings do not differ, at least not negatively. The one difference she found was that single children tended to have stronger bonds with their parents when compared to families with multiple children.

As a single child herself, Falbo had effectively curtailed the belief that single children were somehow inferior. However, there have been more studies that have shown more.

Lower Tolerance and Higher Creativity

Studies have continued to be done since then, many finding different things aspects to consider. While some have discovered statistically significant differences between children with siblings and those without, the differences are small enough to not have to worry about. One of these studies was done in 2017 by Jiang Qiu of Southwest University, Chongqing.

The researchers looked at a sample of single children and those with siblings, in terms of personality and thinking ability.

In one of the surveys, those students who were only children received lower scores when it comes to tolerance. In this context (known as the five-factor model of personality dimensions), tolerant individuals are helpful, compassionate, and cooperative. On the flip side, those with less tolerance are characterized as egocentric, distrustful, quarrelsome, and more competitive.

The thinking ability aspect of this study used a creativity test known as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

What this study found was that children without siblings happened to be better at solving problems in a more creative manner than those with siblings. Known as lateral thinkers, these children were especially proficient when it came to the testing of flexible thinking.

The researchers believed that this difference might lie in the fact that single children were forced to be more reliant on themselves, especially when it came to amusement. Having to rely more on themselves since they were born, these children became more inventive and resourceful.

Furthermore, the above findings were linked to brain scans which were done on the students. While students without siblings had more grey matter in their brains in general, they had fewer grey cells in an area that scientists associate with empathy and tolerance.

What the Experts Say

Of course, there will always be a slew of studies and research that shows one thing or the other. Which is why it’s important to also listen to the experts who might have more real-world experience.

Like all resources on the subject will tell you, you really needn’t worry about single child syndrome.

For one, single children have plenty of places to socialize, especially these days. While urban and suburban children have it particularly easy since there’s a host of daycares, parks, playgrounds, schools, and extracurricular activities to choose from. Even those in rural areas have closer ties (and more of them) these days because of better transportation methods, and even the use of the internet and social media can be a positive socializing factor. Only children have the same amount of friends as children with siblings.

Not to mention that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of factors that go into how a child will grow up.

While some studies may show some differences between children with siblings and those without, even those studies tend to show a very, very, small difference. Focusing on just this aspect alone is not a good way to emphasize the upbringing of a child.

When it comes down to it, children have their own personalities. Some will be introverted and timid with or without siblings—and either way, it’ll be okay in the end. Nevertheless, it is very easy for people to lean on the single child syndrome stereotype. If an only child exhibits any sort of negative behavior, sometimes some people attribute this to them being an only child. It’s important to remember that these negatives also exist in families with many children.

There are a variety of factors that influence a child, and to blame a major characteristic on one aspect is almost always the incorrect way of going about things.

Only children typically receive more attention from their parents, which can be a healthy thing as well.

What to Do if You’re Still Worried

There are some tips to keep in mind if you’re worried about single child syndrome and any of the purported drawbacks. But whether you have one child or multiple, these tips will always be useful.

There seems to evidence that shows that only children have a tendency to become perfectionists. This is because what they’re relating their actions to is their parents—not a peer or sibling. And, as we all know, parents/adults are going to be able to do things much better than a child. It’s important to keep your expectations in line with the appropriate age of a single child and emphasize the enjoyment of an activity rather than the outcome.

Social interaction in their peer group should also be encouraged. One benefit of single children is that they tend to have better relationships with adults and are able to speak of for themselves to a greater degree than those with siblings. This is because their main source of socialization at a young age is their parents, not a peer. While this has the benefit of creating a more confident individual, your child should also have an appropriate amount of socialization with their peers.

This is where they’ll be able to learn to take turns, share and resolve conflicts effectively—not to mention the benefits for their mental health.

Another point is to not overprotect your child. This is both true for children with siblings and without, but poses an important emphasis on the latter group. Since there is only one child, it may make sense that the parents dawdle over them rather than splitting their attention. Support your child, but also allow them to navigate some parts of the world alone.

Lastly, drawing from the point above, allow the child to make decisions on their own. If the parents are the single directors of a child, then the child might be tempted to rely on their input before doing anything. While this may be good in some scenarios at a younger age, it can be a drawback in adulthood. Prime the child for future decision-making by allowing them to make simple decisions at a young age, such as what to wear or what to play.

Final Notes on the Benefits of Having a Single Child

There a number of benefits that come along with being a single child.

Not only do these kids have better relationships with their parents, but that better relationship also gives benefits. Parents have more time and energy to put forth into the child, and a single child can sometimes have more opportunities since the parents don’t have to juggle multiple schedules.

Add to that the benefit of heightened confidence and self-esteem, along with better relationships with adults and being more articulate and comfortable when speaking to them.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should avoid having a child with siblings if that’s what your plan was.

It’s just always important to remember that any child has the potential to grow up into any type of person and placing the emphasis on a preponderance or a lack of siblings doesn’t hold much water when one takes a closer look at things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *