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Only Child Syndrome is a Myth

Myths and stereotypes about only children have been floating around for ages. People claim that kids without siblings grow up with ‘only child syndrome,' meaning they'll be lonely, self-centered, and miss out on crucial life lessons. However, a deeper look into only-child syndrome shows that it's a myth.

The myths about only children are based primarily on outdated and poorly executed research from the Victorian era. Modern research consistently shows that good parenting, supportive environments, and positive social interactions matter more than whether you have brothers and sisters.

What is Only Child Syndrome?

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You might have heard that only children are spoiled, odd, lonely, and grow up to be entitled adults. The term ‘only child syndrome' or ‘only children syndrome' refers to these stereotypes. The idea of only child syndrome has been largely debunked by modern research. Most only children aren't spoiled or odd. They learn social skills and emotional smarts through friends, school, and family, just like kids with siblings do.

Where Have Only Child Stereo Types Come From?

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Photo Credit: Frederick Gutekunst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the stereotypes we still hold about only children came about due to the work of a psychologist from the late 1800's. G Stanley Hall. Hall, who's been called the founder of child psychology, called being an only child, “a disease in itself.” 

Hall's views were based on his Victorian outlook, not on scientific research. These views were popular in a time when larger families were the norm, and having only one child marked a family as different, evoking suspicion.

The Peculiar and Exceptional Children Study

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Photo Credit: Library of Congress Public Domain

Hall oversaw a study by E. W. Bohannon, which observed more than 1,000 “Peculiar and Exceptional Children.” Bohannon said of the 46 onlies, “They have imaginary companions, do not go to school regularly, if at all, do not get along with other children well, as a rule, are generally spoiled by indulgence, and have bad health in most cases.”

It's worth noting that many of his subjects lived in isolated farmhouses, where they worked long hours. It made sense at the time that those children who had no siblings for human interaction would be less well-adjusted compared to children in larger families.

PhD researcher Alice Violett points out that Bohannon's study was also completed by handing out questionnaires that essentially asked respondents to criticize only children. Questionaire recipients were asked to describe peculiar only children they knew and, “state anything else you may think due to the fact that they are the only child, only boy, only girl, the youngest child or twins.”

Old Stereotypes Persist

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Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Public Domain

Social Psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., wrote The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide, which refutes only child stereotypes and reassures parents that having a single child can be very positive. Newman points to modern research by Toni Falbo as well as John Claudy, who found that ‘onlies are much more like other children than they are different.' She suggests that the ongoing only-child myths stem from social and cultural pressure to have more than one child. These stereotypes also make it more likely that we'll associate only children with negative emotions.

Only Child Myths

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You may be wondering just what the current myths are surrounding only children. We took a look at conversations in popular parenting forums to find out the most common only-child myths. Parents often ask questions about whether it's ok to have only one child. They express concern because they've heard one of the following myths.  

Myth: Only children are socially awkward.

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Some folks believe only children are naturally awkward in social situations. But that's not true. Only children get plenty of chances to socialize through playdates, school, and other activities. They make friends and learn how to get along, just like anyone else.

Myth: Only children are overprotected.

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This is another dated perception about only children. Some only children might have been overprotected by their parents, particularly if those parents had struggled to have a child, or had lost another child. Parents also might have wanted to protect a child from feeling awkward for being an only child. But times have changed! Many parents choose to have only one child, and modern parents of only children encourage them to be independent and resilient, ready to face life's challenges head-on.

Myth Only children will be lonely in adulthood.

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Are you worried that only children might be as lonely as adults? In her history thesis, the University of Essex (2018), Alice Violett studied oral histories and autobiographies of only children born between c.1845 and 1945. These histories suggest that there was no typical ‘only-child’ experience in this period. She found only children who reported going gladly to school where they adjusted well, made friends, and led fulfilling lives as adults.

Only children can have fulfilling relationships with friends, partners, and extended family members. They won't necessarily feel lonely just because they don't have siblings.

Myth: Lack of chaos makes only children weak.

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Growing up in a calm and organized home doesn't mean only children can't handle chaos later in life. Kids adapt to different situations based on their experiences, not just their family environment. Whether or not you have siblings is not indicative of your resilience later in life

Myth: Only children don't get shared childhood memories.

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While only children may not share childhood memories with siblings, they still create meaningful memories with friends, cousins, and future partners. Sibling-free childhoods don't limit memory-making opportunities.

Myth: Only children face the burden of care for aging parents.

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The idea that only children will bear the sole responsibility of caring for aging parents is a common worry. However, it's important to remember that sibling relationships don't always guarantee support in old age. Many factors, such as geographical distance, personal circumstances, and the quality of relationships, influence who provides care. It's possible to foster strong connections and support networks outside of siblings. Plus, there are various support systems and resources available for elderly care.

Myth: Only children face societal stigma.

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While there may be online discussions and perceptions about the stigma of raising an only child, real-life experiences often differ. According to Viollett's research on the lived experiences of being an only child, most don't feel stigma or inadequacy. Family dynamics and the quality of relationships play a more significant role in a child's upbringing than the number of siblings.

Myth: Only children are overly dependent 

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It's a myth that only children are overly dependent or lack ‘street smarts.' In fact, only children are often more independent than those with siblings due to the lack of siblings to fend for them. Kids can build resilience skills through interactions with friends and family, whether they have siblings or not. 

Myth: Only kids get too much attention. 

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One concern people point to is that only children can become spoiled due to receiving too much attention.

However, Social Psychologist Susan Newman turns this notion on its head. She found that having plenty of attention actually benefitted only children in social situations. Only children are generally used to being heard, so they are more likely to approach situations regarding sharing and cooperation with calmness, as they don't have so much expectation that they'll have to compete.

In households with multiple kids, it can be harder to find ways to connect with each child, allowing everyone to feel calm and connected. This certainly can be overcome, it's just easier in a single-child household.

Myth: You'll regret having only one child.

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The fear of regretting the decision to have only one child is valid for some parents. However, the decision to have more children should be based on personal desires and circumstances, not societal expectations.

Quality parenting, love, and a supportive family environment are essential for a child's well-being, regardless of family size. In reality, the number of children in a family does not determine happiness or success. It's the love, support, and relationships within the family that truly matter. Each family is unique, and the key is to create a nurturing and loving environment for your child.

 

Alissa Zorn

Author: Alissa Zorn

Title: Trauma-Informed Coach

Expertise: childhood emotional neglect, perfectionism, parenting, journaling, comics, doodling, coaching