Only Child Stereotypes: Fact vs. Fiction

By Susan Newman, PhD

You have to wonder why, when the U.S. Census reports that the single child family is the fastest growing family unit, people tell you to have another child (or you think you should). Proponents of large or larger families claim your only child will be spoiled, lonely, or selfish or worse. These social stereotypes and others date back to the late 1890s and have no basis in fact and probably never did. It is parenting style more than the number of siblings that influences how an only child — or any child for that matter — turns out.

So when someone, perhaps your parent, an in-law or friend, tells you need to have another child, here are the real facts about only children and the myth of misfortune that wrongly still surrounds them.

Here are 7 Myths Now Debunked by Decades of Research:

Myth #1: Only children are aggressive and bossy.

Fact: Only children learn quickly that attempting to run the show, a ploy that they may get away with at home, doesn’t work with friends and a bossy, aggressive attitude is a quick ticket to ostracism from the group. Lacking siblings, only children want to be included and well liked.

Myth #2: All only children have imaginary companions to compensate for their loneliness.

Fact: There is no scientific evidence. Jerome Singer, Ph.D., professor of psychology and child study at Yale University, confirms that the imagination required to create make-believe friends “is not the exclusive property of the ‘only’ child, the isolated, the ill or the handicapped. Imaginary friends serve a purpose of meeting a need—to confront loneliness, to combat a fear, or to compensate for feelings of weakness in relation to adults or older children.” Any child can feel that need.

Myth #3: Only children are spoiled.

Fact: Being spoiled is a reflection of our society. The Chinese feared they were raising a generation of “little emperors” when their only child policy was in effect. Looking back 30 years later researchers have found that only children are not particularly spoiled and found no difference in only children’s relationships with friends when studied with children who had siblings.

Myth #4: Only children are selfish.

Fact: Every child at one time or another believes the world revolves around him. “Selfish means you are thinking of yourself as opposed to others,” explains Michael Lewis, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “The youngster who is unable to take the view of another is going to appear selfish. There are points in people’s lives, one of them being adolescence, when the energy is withdrawn. Hormonal changes and physical growth during that time may be particularly harsh and the energy to focus on others just isn’t there.” In the absence of siblings, parents cultivate the tools of sharing and feeling for others and are the best early teachers because of trust and faith children have in their parents. All parents can expect their toddlers and teens to act selfishly at times.

Myth #5: Only children must have their way.

Fact: Children with siblings often have more “who’s the boss” difficulties because they are constantly forced to share toys, television times, and parents. Kindergarten teacher Deejay Schwartz observes: “It’s the ones who have been jostled and have had to compete who are always trying to push someone down, to be first in line or yell louder in order to be heard. Onlies have always been heard at home, and therefore function in a very calm way.”

Myth #6: Only children are dependent.

Fact: Because of adult guidance and lack of siblings to lean on, only children are more self-reliant and independent than those who have brothers and sisters to fend for them.

Myth #7: Only children become too mature too quickly.

Fact: Children with siblings relate and talk to their siblings rather than their parents. The only child’s primary role models are parents. The result is that only children copy adult behavior as well as adult speech patterns and develop good reasoning skills early on making them better equipped to handle the ups and downs of growing up. A good thing, for sure.

Myths die hard and slowly.

Pay no attention. Families with one child have outnumbered those with two children for two decades now. It seems the smaller, single child family is here to stay.

More myths are debunked and more ammunition given to fend off the people who tell you your child needs a sibling in The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide and Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only or in Singletons at Psychology Today.