Sibling-less children of the world, rejoice! Only child syndrome is not a thing. That’s right, despite all the jealous unfair labels you’ve had to carry throughout your life as an only child—that you’re bossy, spoiled, uncompromising and selfish—the truth is that you’re actually independent, creative and fueled by the time and attention your parents were able to devote to you as a kid.
That’s the consensus we reached after speaking with two experts in the field: Denise Duval Tsioles, Ph.D., LCSW, founder and clinical director of Child Therapy Chicago, and social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide and Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only. Still skeptical? Drs. Duval Tsioles and Newman get into the details below.
First things first: Where did the only-child stigma even come from?
Like most incorrect assumptions, blame this one on archaic notions of gender and normalcy.
“Only child syndrome is a leftover stigma that has been attached to kids without siblings for more than a hundred years,” Dr. Newman told us. “Society is still buried in this idea that the perfect family is ‘a boy for you, a girl for me,’ and that kids have to have siblings. Some people are still holding on to that even though research shows having one child or no children is becoming much more popular and affords families the opportunity to give their only kids so much more. So this notion of the ‘only child syndrome’ doesn’t hold up anymore, because only children are just as common and well adjusted as children with siblings.”
Are only children at risk of not learning important social skills without siblings?
Some people believe that being raised in a single-child household means that kids don’t learn how to share, communicate or interact with other kids at a young age. But this simply isn’t true, according to both the stats and the experts.
“Only children usually have lots of opportunities for socialization, especially when they are school-aged and older,” Dr. Duval Tsioles says. “They interact with other kids all day in school, during extracurricular activities and at various other peer and social functions. For younger kids, playdates, play groups, preschool programs, camps and spending time in public places—like children’s museums, play spaces and kid-centric events—offers plenty of opportunities for social engagement.”
And the data proves this. In a study titled “Good for Nothing: Number of Siblings and Friendship Nominations Among Adolescents,” published in the Journal of Family Issues, researchers asked 13,500 kids to name ten friends and found that only children were just as popular as their peers from multi-child homes.
“These results contribute to the view that there is little risk to growing up without siblings, or alternatively, that siblings really may be ‘good for nothing,’” the scientists concluded.
In other words, an under-your-roof buddy is certainly nice, but it doesn’t make up for the vast socialization that happens in outside-the-house, non-familial environments.
Are only children lonely without built-in playmates?
Nope! In fact, alone time is pretty crucial in the formation of a child’s personality and can even lead to confident, desirable characteristics in your stress-free kid. According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, “solitude could lead to relaxation and reduced stress when individuals actively chose to be alone.” So why not allow your child this benefit without stressing yourself out that she’ll be a lifelong loner without a sibling?
Moreover, says Dr. Newman, “In studies, only children have as many friends as those with siblings, and as they get older, kids are so connected with cell phones and social media, so this ‘lonely’ stigma doesn’t carry any weight.”
But aren’t siblings your lifelong friends and confidants?
Sometimes. After all, we all know those sisters who talk on the phone 19 times a day and finish each other’s sentences. But just as often, a sibling relationship is fraught with petty arguments, bullying or even distance and contempt.
“One of the advantages of being an only child is that there’s no sibling rivalry, no sibling abuse and no verbal aggression between brothers and sisters,” Dr. Newman says. “This happens in an inordinate number of families, where this negative contact can have lifelong affects. Siblings don’t always like each other, even into adulthood.”
Are only children inherently selfish?
“The stereotypes people have about only children actually have more to do with temperament than not having siblings,” Dr. Duval Tsioles explains. “Some children—only children and children with siblings—are born with more sensitive, intense, reactive temperaments. These kids are bigger feelers and bigger reactors. So when something happens or doesn’t go as they imagine it will, they tend to have stronger reactions, and this can appear as selfishness. When they are only children, this temperament or personality often gets attributed to their only-child status without consideration of temperament.”
Add to that a recent article published in Scientific American that says being an only child is not a negative or “less healthy” way of growing up, it’s just a different way, and we’ve got a busted stereotype on our hands.
So is it actually beneficial to be an only child?
“Only children often have strong relationships with their parents in part because they get the full time and attention of caregivers who are able to focus their emotional and physical energies on just one child,” Dr. Duval Tsioles says. “Only children sometimes have more opportunities to be involved in activities outside the home because parents aren’t juggling multiple schedules. They may also have more opportunities to have different life experiences because it’s less costly to afford those with only one child.”
Kids who grow up without siblings also tend to be super creative and become more articulate adults, according to Dr. Duval Tsioles. They learn how to stand up for themselves from a young age and are less likely to rely on other people to make them happy.
Need more proof? Here are some pretty successful only children for ya: Leonardo DiCaprio, Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra.
Does this mean having siblings is a detriment?
Of course not. Just as the negative stereotypes associated with being an only child don’t hold water, neither do any broad-sweeping judgments about multi-child households.
“Any stigma attached to only children could be labeled on any child,” Dr. Newman maintains.
In other words, all children have the potential to be jerks or angels (or, more likely, a combination) and it has little to do with how many brothers or sisters they do or don’t have. That said, there are ways for parents to nurture an only child so she grows up to thrive—namely, setting behavioral expectations.
“Children who grow up without siblings are still part of family systems,” Dr. Duval Tsioles says. “Learning to share with parents, learning how to compromise on family decisions and rules, and having boundaries helps too.” Just don’t waver from the plan—or give in to a tantrum—and everyone wins.