The Myth of the Only Child

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As couples are starting families later in life and they are facing increasing economic pressures, more and more parents are wondering whether or not they will have that second child. Fertility rates have dropped for the third year running in Canada, falling to 1.61 children per woman in 2011, according to a Statistics Canada report, more women aged 35 to 39 are having babies than those aged 20 to 24. This was the basis of a recent conversation I was involved with while speaking with a group of Mothers, and an in-depth discussion of the  “only child” followed. Those considering one child openly expressed their concerns about the impact of being the “only child”, and how their decision-making may have long-term consequences. Sociologist Dr. Donna Bobbit-Zeher summarizes those concerns,

As family sizes get smaller in industrialized countries, there is concern about what it might mean for society as more children grow up without brothers and sisters. The fear is that they may be losing something by not learning social skills through interacting with siblings.

In our society many are quick to offer labels as a convenient, and potentially inaccurate way to describe others, and the “only child” label is no exception to this convenience. The stereotype of a lonely, spoiled, bossy and maladjusted only child dates back to 1896, when an American psychologist named Granville Stanley Hall did a research paper on the subject. The paper, “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children,” claimed that, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.” Despite major flaws in his study and fundamental changes to the structure of family life since then the stereotype has generally stuck around.

In 2010, sociologists Donna Bobbitt-Zeher and Douglas Downey analyzed data from a long-term study of adolescents. The data set included lists made by each student when asked to name five male friends and five female friends. The study, which involved nearly 13,500 kids in grades 7 through 12, found that only children were listed just as often on friendship lists as were kids with siblings. The number of siblings they had made no difference; neither did the gender of their siblings. “It’s a huge finding,” Newman said, “and a positive one, because one of the concerns parents have when deciding how many children to have is, ‘What’s going to be the outcome of my child?'”

It has long been established that only children tend to have greater cognitive ability than those with many siblings, but some researchers have regarded that as counterbalanced by weaker social skills — which could potentially pose a problem for only children as they mature. Some of the most persuasive evidence for that view up till now comes from a 2004 study of more than 20,000 kindergarten children in the United States, which showed that teachers rated only children as having poorer social skills than their peers who had at least one sibling — reporting less self-control, fewer interpersonal skills and more behavioral problems.

When reaching fifth grade, however, the social skills of the 2004 cohort were again assessed by their teachers — and revealed the same result as the adolescent study based on friendship: there was no difference in social skills between those with and without siblings. “That the disadvantage of lacking siblings is not there in fifth grade using the same measure gives us more confidence that, while there is a non-trivial difference in the way we are measuring social skills, the story is really about the children’s age,” says Downey. The authors noted, “These results contribute to the view that there is little risk to growing up without siblings-or alternatively Other studies in plenty of countries have scrutinized each aspect of the only-child stereotype and failed to find evidence for any of it.

And what can parents do to assure that their only children form solid friendships?  Click on the link to read what Author Susan Newman (The Case for the Only Child, 2011; Parenting an Only Child, 2001) suggests are some of the best things you can do to be sure your only child forms solid friendships.