Only children often get a bad rap for a myth that knows them as lonely, selfish, impatient, spoiled, and maladjusted kids. As a result, many experts have encouraged parents to raise many children. American psychologist Stanley Hall, for instance, claimed that being a lone child was “a disease in itself.” Another psychologist named Eugene Bohannon also offered an analysis of the only child—that they are oversensitive and less venturesome as well as prone to “priggish self-conceit.”
According to PinkVilla, the top entertainment portal in India, these traits can affect their adulthood. Previous studies have even claimed that only children are at a greater risk of having mental disorders, which were later proved wrong. Experts say that there is no difference between children with siblings and without siblings for mental health.
Despite these stereotypes, there’s been an increasing number of single-child families. The US Census Bureau reported that the number of single-child families in the country grew from 10 million in 1972 to about 15 million in 2018. However, many parents are still anxious about having one child because of the “only child syndrome.” While countless studies and several child-rearing experts have said that it’s not true, the claims that only children are spoiled, selfish, and bossy have shown astonishing sticking power.
"There are stereotypical characteristics people ascribe to only children, which may have some truth to varying degrees, but these characteristics describe many people in the general population,” Dr. Denise Duval Tsioles, Ph.D., psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, said.
The Origin of Only Child Syndrome
The only child syndrome emerged when psychologists Hall and Bohannon studied and categorized children with a number of different traits. They created a questionnaire and had it filled out by 200 test subjects, where they were asked about the peculiarities of any only children they knew. In 196 cases, the participants described children without siblings as excessively spoiled. The findings made them conclude that children would be better off with siblings.
Experts in the early 20th century were also concerned that growing up without siblings causes children to become hypersensitive. They explained that the child could become overly sensitive and eventually a hypochondriac with weak nerves if their parents concentrated all their worries and fears on one offspring. However, several studies conducted after that revealed that the findings of Hall’s and Bohannon’s study were unscientific and flawed—essentially making only child syndrome a myth.
According to Scientific American, an American popular science magazine, data compiled in the 21st century revealed that these notions are nonsense and only children show no serious deficits. In the 1986 survey of Toni Falbo, a psychologist at The University of Texas at Austin, she concluded the characteristics of children with and without siblings do not differ. The findings were agreed upon by psychologists Andreas Klocke and Sven Stadtmüller from the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences in a 2018 study.
The 2018 study aimed to track down the peculiarities of firstborns, only children, and those with siblings. The findings showed that 25% of only children considered their relationship with their parents positive. About 24% of firstborns, 20% of middle children, and 18% of youngest children also reported very good relationships with their parents.
"Only child syndrome is not real. It's something people attribute to kids who don't have siblings and display negative behaviors. Only kids may be at risk for having social difficulties, have a hard time sharing the spotlight or issues with conflict resolution, but that's not true across the board,” Joshua Rosenthal, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and president of Manhattan Psychology Group, said.
Other experts agreed with Rosenthal. "In Hall's study, kids lived on farms and far apart. Today, kids are socialized early through play dates, daycare, and prekindergarten. Only children are not more spoiled, selfish, or aggressive. They want friends, and if they display these behaviors, they will not have any, so the theory lacks merit,” Susan Newman, Ph.D., psychologist and author of “The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide,” said.
Being an Only Child Can Change the Structure of Your Brain
While it’s been proven that being an only child will not make a person selfish and spoiled, experts say that there’s still an impact. Having siblings can significantly affect a person’s life, particularly in terms of learning lessons that are important in adulthood. "Our siblings offer so much to us throughout life, particularly when we're very young. The way I learned about very important life social lessons is through my sibling relationship,” Avidan Milevsky, a research scientist of sibling relationships at Ariel University in Israel, said.
A 2017 study also found that not having a sibling can affect the structure of our brains. The researchers from the Southwest University in Chongqing, China, investigated if only children demonstrated neurological differences from their peers who grew up with brothers and sisters. They compared brain scans of only children and those with siblings. Their personalities were also tested for creativity and intelligence.
According to Science Alert, a leading scientific publisher dedicated to publishing peer-reviewed significant research work, the findings showed that there are significant differences in the participants' grey matter volume. The researchers said that it's the first neurological evidence in this area linking changes in brain structure to differing behaviors.
"Additionally, our results contribute to the understanding of the neuroanatomical basis of the differences in cognitive function and personality between only-children and non-only-children," the authors said.
The team also found out that while only children were more creative overall, they scored lower on having an agreeable personality. More importantly, the MRI results actually demonstrated neurological differences in the participants' grey matter volume (GMV) as a result of their upbringing.
Dr. Tsioles believes that personality is built depending on the type of early relationships children establish with their caregivers. "Only children are often described as being lonely, selfish, unwilling to share and lacking in patience, but these characteristics are typical of toddlers in general and a lot of adults, whether they had siblings or not," he added.
Hence, being an only child doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll grow up carrying all these negative traits. It always depends on a child’s upbringing.