JUST ONE: The Only Child Syndrome

(Q&A with Child Psychologist Dr. Stan Royzman below)

Weird, Spoiled, Precocious, Selfish, Lonely, Aggressive, Perfectionist.

Those are just some of the labels that an Only child gets. Are they true?

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Since having Luke at a late age in my life, and knowing I would not be having another child, I started to wonder about all the stereotypes that surround Only children. I’m a Middle child and I get stuck with the “middle child syndrome” characteristics – some are good like creative and independent, which I like to believe apply to me:) But the basic theory is that Middle children are resentful of all the attention the first and youngest children got and so they are rebellious, and if I want to be truthful, that also applies to me.

According to Alfred Adler (Austrian psychologist 1870-1937), birth order had a very big impact on the child’s personality. He believed First-born children were prone to perfectionism and need for affirmation. Since there is always someone who was there first, Second or Middle children grow to be more competitive and rebellious. Youngest children, Adler believed, may be dependent and selfish due to always being taken care of by family members.

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What did Adler say about Only children, that they can be over-protected and spoiled – big surprise. Well forgive me Dr. Adler if I say my child will never be spoiled, not if I can help it! But I’m sure that’s what every parent thinks and believes about their child regardless of if they have siblings or not. So what does it really mean to be an Only child?

Obviously having or not having siblings is going to effect your childhood and personality in some way shape or form. There are so many studies and articles about this and as family dynamics have changed, so have the results. In the 19th century being an Only child was not considered to be a good thing at all. Psychologist, G Stanley Hall claimed being a lone child was “a disease in itself”. Another psychologist, Eugene Bohanon said Only children were less venturesome and oversensitive, prone to priggish self conceit.warning-Only-Childquote-being-an-only-child-is-a-disease-in-itself-g-stanley-hall-78024

But this was also a time when having lots of children was more socially accepted, and a time when psychology was still a relatively new science with many testing theories, remember “penis envy” (I think that’s another article:)

The reasons people decide to have just “one” child are many. The percentage of couples who have one child has doubled in the past 20 years, up from 10 percent, based on 2011 Census Bureau figures. Today there are 20 million only-child households in the United States. As couples marry later and extend careers, and as fertility issues increase, the result is more Only children. Asking around some parents I know, finance seems to be a big reason, but a few parents have confessed, they like just focusing on one child.  They also like having more freedom in what one child brings.  And yes, they worry about having a child that is selfish or lonely.

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There are a lot of interesting famous Only children – Al Pacino, Elvis Presley, Alan Greenspan, Ghandi, Carol Brunett, Charles Lindbergh, Isaac Newton, Eleanor Roosevelt and my personal favorite Robin Williams. Robin was kind, creative, passionate and highly intelligent. He also committed suicide because he was depressed. So does that mean that Only children are more prone to depression than other children or that being a highly intelligent person may do that?  Or does one not have anything to do with the other?

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The intricacies of birth order, or not having siblings, is a bit more complex than “only children are spoiled”. Of course parenting style, environment and education all play important factors in shaping any child but we can’t ignore not having a sibling as a factor. I thought I would ask Child Psychologist Dr. Stan Royzman to get more perspective.  Here’s what he had to say:

Q: I know there are a lot of studies about Only children.  What are some of the recent findings about Only children both positive and not so positive?”

A: This is true, there are many studies on the subject; however, it may be important to know that much of our knowledge about only children comes to us by way of China from their One Child Policy implemented back in 1979 in an effort to slow population growth.  Recent studies tell us that only children are at no greater risk for psychological disorders or academic challenges compared to their non-only child counterparts. Rather, only children may actually possess a buffer against mental illness, and some studies suggest that only children demonstrate higher performances on academic and cognitive measures. The research also tells us that only children have greater achievement motivation and are more likely to attain a higher level of education, and that they show greater levels of life satisfaction and are better equipped for managing stressful situations.

Despite the advantages, the research does suggest some challenges to being an only child. For instance, only children have considerably fewer opportunities to rehearse and troubleshoot relational challenges.  Since siblings are around one another for most of the day they need to learn how to navigate nuanced social situations, and they get to do so within a safe environment. Only children must learn how to navigate these complicated relationships as well, but they do so in the context of playdates, daycare, school, and extracurricular activities.

Q: It seems like perceptions about Only children have changed over the years, what is the biggest misconception about Only children today?

A:  The stereotypes suggest that only children are spoiled, selfish, lonely, and maladjusted. I can tell you now, as can the research, these stereotypes are simply not true. Despite the growing body of research shooting down the stereotypes, these claims have impacted peoples’ perceptions. For instance, a Gallup poll conducted in the early 2000s indicated that only 3% of American adults believed a one child family to be the ideal family size.

Q: One of the main reasons I decided to have Luke in daycare was so he interacted with other kids, how important is that for an Only child?

A: I most certainly support having only children enrolled in daycare, and also in preschool. It offers them additional opportunities to interact with others and learn to navigate the social sphere. Fewer opportunities to socialize may lead to some practical and emotional consequences for only children, such as loneliness for instance. Socializing helps children understand that those around them also have ideas, interests, likes and dislikes, and it teaches them to appreciate difference. This is something that siblings have built into their life, but it’s something that parents of only children need to create through various experiences.

Q:  Is it a myth or is there some truth to Only children having “imaginary friends?

A:  Many children have imaginary friends, only children and those with siblings. Imaginary buddies are typical and some research even tells us that kids have imaginary friends until 7 or 8 years old.  I’m not one to reference Sigmund Freud, but he wrote about how the use of fantasy and imagination may be a way to satisfy needs and desires that aren’t being met in our physical reality.  To translate this, and in following Freud’s logic, a child may develop an imaginary friend because he or she may be feeling socially or emotionally isolated. Now, the research is inconsistent around this point but the advice is the same either way – make sure a child has a healthy social life by providing them with adequate opportunities to engage with their peers.

Q: I was also reading how many adult Only children really feel a sense of loss from not having any siblings, is that common, and if so, is there anything a parent can do to make them feel less solitary?

A: Siblings possess a confidant and someone with whom to commiserate. Having the sympathy of someone in the same situation could either reduce the subjective experience of the stressor or at least make it more tolerable.  There are the subjective reports that we occasionally hear from only children who are now adults, with some saying they wish they had a sibling growing up so that they wouldn’t have felt as lonely. As adults, some may express a wish for siblings so that they could have help planning and caring for their aging parents. So there are issues to consider when it comes to raising only children, but each of the issues is very manageable as long as the parent is aware of what they are.

Q: Like many parents of Only children, I’m afraid of raising a “spoiled” kid, are there different disciplinary measures a parent should take with an Only child that are different than children with siblings?

A: Exactly what does it mean to be spoiled? Well, someone who is spoiled may be less concerned about others, thinking largely about themselves. He or she may feel a sense of entitlement, in that they deserve everything they receive simply because of who they are. Someone who is spoiled may feel it unnecessary to work for what they want, and instead may expect others to simply hand them whatever it is they desire. They may also take people and things for granted, treating others as if they’re dispensable. Although family composition may be related, becoming a spoiled child or a spoiled adult has to do with parental practices more so than the number of siblings someone has.

Occasionally, parents will come into the office for a consult and express their concern about raising a “spoiled” child.  After some discussion I present them with several questions in order to better understand where they are in their thought process and whether they’ve been able to develop an action plan.

Question 1: Am I teaching my child to be kind to others?

Question 2: Am I teaching my child that their feelings matter, as do the feelings of others?

Question 3: Am I teaching my child the value and importance of hard work, effort and persistence?

Question 4: Am I teaching my child that disappointment is a natural part of life?

Question 5: Am I teaching my child how to appropriately address and manage disappointment and frustration?

Q:  What other advice would you give parents raising an Only child? And would that advice change if you were giving it to a single parent such as myself?

A: To all parents, I would suggest they sit down each month for one hour and spend some time thinking about who they want their child to be in the future. And I don’t mean what kind of profession you would like for them to have; and this exercise has nothing to do with academic success. These days we place so much emphasis on accomplishment and achievement that we relegate personal qualities and character traits to the back-burner, and what’s worse is we don’t realize it. After you’ve determined the personal qualities you would like for your child, ask yourself what it is you are doing to help foster the growth of these traits. In order for your children to meet these expectations they need you as a model, and they require your active guidance and wisdom to become the best possible version of themselves, and of you.

Dr. Stan Royzman, PsyD, MSEd, is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. He is a regional supervisor for New York Foundling, overseeing mental health services for their North-Manhattan and Bronx clinics. He is also the owner of Cognitive Champs Psychological Services, a private practice located in Midtown Manhattan, where Dr. Royzman and his colleagues provide children, adolescents and young adults with psychotherapy, psychological testing and neuropsychological evaluations. www.CognitiveChamps.com

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4 thoughts on “JUST ONE: The Only Child Syndrome

  1. Very interesting, Maria! I think ‘being spoiled’ is more to do with how an only child is raised than whether they have siblings. Sometimes it’s even better to be an only child, depending on the sibling. I guess there are pros and cons to both. But I’ll be happy with one child too 🙂

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