The Only Child: Debunking the Myths

Only children are supposed to be spoiled, selfish and lonely. In fact they're just fine — and on the rise, as more parents choose against having multiple children

  • Andrea Stern for TIME

    Madelyn Vickmark, 21 months, with her dad Bryce at home in Boston. Her mother Rochelle Rosen runs an educational-consulting firm

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    Later generations of scholars tried to correct the record, but their findings never filtered into popular parenting discourse. Meanwhile, the "peculiar" only children — "overprivileged, asocial, royally autonomous ... self-centered, aloof and overly intellectual," as sociologist Judith Blake describes them in her 1989 book Family Size and Achievement — permeated pop culture, from the demon children in horror films (The Omen, The Bad Seed) to the oddball sidekicks in '80s sitcoms (Growing Pains, Family Ties). Even on the new show Modern Family, the tween singleton is a cringingly precocious loner with a coddling mother. Such vehicles have evangelized Hall's teachings more than his clubs did. Of course we ask when someone is going to have "kids," not "a kid." Of course we think that one is the loneliest number.

    No one has done more to disprove Hall's stereotype than Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. An only child herself and the mother of one, Falbo began investigating the only-child experience in the 1970s, both in the U.S. and in China (where the government's one-child policy, the world's biggest experiment in population control, went into effect in 1979), drawing on the experience of tens of thousands of subjects. Twenty-five years ago, she and colleague Denise Polit conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies of only children from 1925 onward that considered developmental outcomes of adjustment, character, sociability, achievement and intelligence. The studies, mainly from the U.S., cut across class and race.

    Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren't measurably different from other kids — except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement. No one, Falbo says, has published research that can demonstrate any truth behind the stereotype of the only child as lonely, selfish and maladjusted. (She has spoken those three words so many times in the past 35 years that they run together as one: lonelyselfishmaladjusted.) Falbo and Polit later completed a second quantitative review of more than 200 personality studies. By and large, they found that the personalities of only children were indistinguishable from their peers with siblings.

    "For most people, this still hasn't sunk in," she tells me after a meeting of her graduate seminar in social psychology. She's just spent a couple of hours pacing a linoleum classroom floor in platform heels, presenting data to her students — all of whom have siblings, except for an exchange student from China (who is a product of the one-child policy) — but they still don't seem to have internalized the lesson. After class, a student from West Texas chats with a student from India. He had astute things to say during class regarding how cultures adapt over time, offering sharp observations about the psychology of collectivism. But now he refers to how there's "no only-child problem" in his big family. "I'm not saying only children are socially retarded or anything, but, you know ..." he laughs.

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    At California State University at Dominguez Hills, Adriean Mancillas — an only child and the mother of triplets — has studied the prevalence of only-child stereotypes. They can be found cross-culturally from Estonia to Brazil, she says, dating to "when people needed bigger families to farm the land." And they stick. "You can tell people all the research in the world that contradicts it," she says, but the same cognitive psychology that maintains any sort of prejudice, large or small, applies.

    Of course, part of the reason we assume only children are spoiled is that whatever parents have to give, the only child gets it all. The argument Blake makes in Family Size and Achievement as to why onlies are higher achievers across socioeconomic lines can be stated simply: there's no "dilution of resources," as she terms it, between siblings. No matter their income or occupation, parents of only children have more time, energy and money to invest in their kid, who gets all the dance classes, piano lessons and prep courses, as well as all their parents' attention when it comes to helping work out an algebra problem. That attention, researchers have noticed, leads to not just higher SAT scores but also higher self-esteem.

    And as Falbo tells her students, the cocktail of aptitude and confidence yields results: only children tend to do better in school and get more education — college, medical or law degrees — than other kids. Not that having siblings will necessarily thwart you; Einstein had a sister and did just fine. But for every Venus and Serena Williams you can find a luminary singleton: Cary Grant, Elvis Presley, John Updike, Lance Armstrong or Frank Sinatra.

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