Dispelling 5 Myths about the Only Child Syndrome

The only child syndrome is a theory. It is a longstanding theory, but it is one that has largely been discredited. It is also a theory that many, and perhaps most people, including some scholars on the subject, seem to insist on clinging to. The syndrome defines how, as an only child, you are expected to act or behave as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult.

Overall, the syndrome takes a rather negative look at a child with brothers or sisters. While there are some things that only children supposedly excel at more than those with brothers and sisters, by and large, they are often pictured as lonely, antisocial, and spoiled rotten kids who are adept at acting out the role as the ‘Little Emperor.’

It would be fair to say that these children are better in some ways and worse in other ways than those who have brothers or sisters. Those things that are either better or worse that can be quantitatively measured add up to differences of 1% or so from the mean, which says that those children without a sibling aren’t all that different from other children when everything is taken into account. Looking at it another way, the good things are inclined to balance out the bad, and the advantages of being the sole child are likely to balance out against the disadvantages.

If there is an operative word when it comes to distinguishing between an only child and one that comes from a larger family, that word would be ‘tends.’ If you measure personality traits, scholastic abilities, and the ability to socialize with others, you will find that at the very most, any departure from the average cannot be summed up as a percentage or a score. The words ‘tend’ or ‘tend to’ have to be added. A siblingless child who is raised on a farm may ‘tend to’ be more lonely than one who is raised on a farm but has brothers or sisters, but by the time that child has started going to school, the ‘tends to’ more often than not disappears.

What then are some of the stereotypes that make up the so-called only child syndromes? Is there some truth in them, or are they largely myths?

The syndrome dates back to the final decade of the nineteenth century when a psychologist, who perhaps should have known better or gathered better data, presented some findings that indicated a number of disadvantages faced by siblingless children and how those disadvantages could haunt some of them throughout their lives. Other scholars latched on to these findings as gospel, and the stereotypes presented were not dispelled until the mid to late twentieth century. A few people still cling to them.

It must be remembered that in the late nineteenth century, America was still in many ways a rural society and families tended to be larger. After all, there was work on the farm that had to be attended to.

For nearly 100 years, the following myths about only children prevailed, at least in the minds of many:

  • They are lonely children
  • They tend to become selfish and spoiled
  • They are more likely to become maladjusted
  • They are less teachable than those with siblings
  • They tend to be a burden on society

If all of the above were true, it would certainly not be pleasant to be a siblingless child, nor would it be particularly pleasant to be around one. These assumptions are not true however, at least in the vast majority of cases, and the myths surrounding these children need to be put to rest.

Looking closely at these myths or stereotypes one at a time should convince you that the main difference between a siblingless child and one with siblings is the lack of siblings. When you first meet a stranger, there is really no way of telling if the person has brothers or sisters unless you’re provided with that information.

Myth #1They Are Lonely Children

Many people are aware of the fact that it is possible to be lonely in a crowd. It’s even possible to have friends and acquaintances and still be a lonely person. A belief that is held by many is that if you have a pet, it’s better to have two of the same kinds so each will have a playmate. That may be true of some dogs, cats, or horses, especially the latter, but it doesn’t necessarily hold true for humans. Consider how lonely it can be at times for a young boy who is not yet attending school and is living with two or three older sisters.

If anything, a child without a brother or sister is often more likely to find friends once he or she has reached school age. In addition, most siblingless children do indeed get a bit more attention from their parents than do children who live in a large family. That’s not to say their parents love them that much more, it’s just that if the parents are so inclined, they can spend more quality time with their sole child. Perhaps a child without siblings might be a bit lonelier than one who has an identical twin, but having an identical twin is not all that common and would have a tendency to skew the statistics.

Myth #2They Tend to Become Selfish and Spoiled

The siblingless child is often portrayed as being a selfish, spoiled brat – someone who is constantly being doted over by his or her parents and constantly showered with toys to prevent loneliness. There are definitely some kids who fit that mold. On the other hand, parents with siblingless children have a tendency to want more and expect more from that child. Instead of being showered with toys, a child without siblings is just as apt to be compelled to take piano lessons and finish homework on time and taught to lead a normal social life. In other words, there is a greater tendency on the part of the parents to groom their child for success. After all, it’s that child who will eventually decide on which nursing home the parents may end up in.

Myth #3They Have a Greater Tendency to Become Maladjusted

When you look at the news headlines, those who commit crimes such as school shootings are often portrayed as loners, which some translate as being only children. More than a few people who have committed heinous crimes have brothers or sisters. In all likelihood, most of them do unless statistics can prove otherwise, which they do not appear to do. In truth, a child without siblings has more tendencies to figure things out for himself or herself than a child who comes from a large family. He or she also has a tendency to become more independent while at the same time having a tighter bond with his or her parents than a child with siblings. This gets back to the point of the parents of children without brothers or sisters tending to be a bit more demanding at times and showering their child with equal amounts of love and discipline. Statistically, it appears that children without siblings are slightly less in need of the services of a psychiatrist during his or her adult life than is the case with an adult who has brothers and sisters, although the reason why isn’t all that clear.

Myth #4They Are Less Teachable than Those with Siblings Are

Just the opposite tends to be true. You still have to use the qualifier ‘tends to,’ but the only child tends to have a higher IQ and do better in school that those with siblings. There have been a number of studies in recent years that appear to bear this out. Part of the reason for this has to do with parenting, which has been touched upon. Parents have more time to devote to an only child’s education and learning process, and they also have a tendency to demand more of their only child. Most parents want their children to do well, but those with a single child seem at times to be more fearful of the possibility that their child may not be very successful in life. One recent study indicated that only children completed an average of 13.5 years of schooling as compared with 13.2 years for children with siblings. The difference is of course rather small in terms of percentages but nevertheless would seem to refute the myth that only children are less teachable. This myth may have had its roots in the fact that when America was more of an agrarian society, the oldest children would educate the younger one on how to do the chores.

Myth #5They Tend to Be a Burden on Society

This is not so much of a separate issue as it is a combination of all of the other myths. If all, or even a few of these myths were true, society would probably be better off if there were no only children around to make things more difficult. A fairly large segment of our society would be lonely, selfish, spoiled rotten, maladjusted, and poorly educated. Things don’t seem to have worked out that way.

What Only Children Are Really Like

Bearing in mind that there are no overwhelmingly great differences between only children and those with siblings as they grow into adulthood, there are a few tendencies that, while not terribly dramatic, still are likely to destroy most the stereotypes long held about siblingless children:

Only children, as they enter adulthood, tend to feel a greater responsibility towards their parents and in fact tend to know their parents better than those coming from larger families.

They likely prefer family and a few close friends as opposed to making acquaintances with larger numbers of people or joining groups or clubs for companionship. They are often less sensitive or susceptible to peer pressure.

They can be a bit more self-critical and are also more sensitive to parental disapproval than those with siblings.
They seem to be less comfortable with change and more comfortable in stable and predictable situations, especially where their parents and extended family are involved. They may have a tendency to be more uncomfortable with conflict, since they have not had to compete with siblings for attention, which often sows the seeds of conflict.

They tend to be more ambitious, usually as a result of the parenting they have received. They will sometimes likely stand up better under both academic and athletic pressures.

They often grow up to be more possessive, as they have not had the same experience with sharing as those in larger families; they are more possessive with both their belongings and their time.

There are differences, but it must be emphasized one more time that these differences are tendencies more than hard-and-fast behavioral rules. The fact that there are differences does not reinforce the only child syndrome however. The facts prove otherwise.