No longer lonely and spoilt – today’s only child is self-sufficient and high-achieving. So while siblings may have the benefit of a DNA matched confidante they will have for life, what are the bonuses of being an only child?
AROUND A THIRD of families in the UK have only one child and the number of these families increased by 300,000 between 2000 and 2005. This trend is echoed in most Western countries: the average European family size has decreased from 2.0 children in 1971 to 1.4 today. In the US, the average family size dropped from 2.4 children in 1970 to 1.8 by 2000. Between 1980 and 1998 in the US, there has been an 85 per cent increase in the number of women aged 40 (ie, those deemed to have completed their families) who have just one child.
These figures are explained partially by increasing numbers of women having children later in life, by which time they either make a lifestyle choice to have only one child – often to combine career and motherhood – or in many cases, decreased fertility dictates the choice. The rising divorce rate is another factor, as parents separate before completing their family, becoming single parents to an only child. Other parents cite the expense of bringing up a child, or even, as US writer and environmental campaigner Bill McKibben claims, because it is the socially and environmentally responsible decision.
Popular prejudice typecasts all only children as spoilt, lonely and selfish. Sarah Bond, mother of a six-year-old only child, disagrees. “Of course, Poppy is indulged,” she says. “That’s an inevitable part of being an only child, but I’m hypersensitive to signs of selfish behaviour. I make sure Poppy shares, considers others, compromises with peers when necessary and listens well to other people. And if she manages all that, I can’t see the problem with letting her have her own way at home. The two most self-obsessed ‘Princess’ types in her class are not only children, but mini-me versions of high-maintenance mothers who don’t pay them much attention. You don’t need to seek
out only children these days to find precocious offspring who get their own way more than is good for them –
it’s a widespread parenting style.”
Psychological research supports this view and there’s no evidence to reinforce the stereotypical only-child character profile. Dr Toni Falbo, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas, has studied one-child families for 30 years. “For a century, only children have had this reputation for being lonely, unpleasant, selfish and maladjusted,” he says. “People have tried to make parents who have only one child feel guilty and wrong for choosing to do so – many polls show that lots of families have a second child for no other reason than to prevent the first child from growing up without siblings.”
But Falbo’s findings reveal that only children do often enjoy advantages. “Some of the perks are logical and simply have to do with physical resources and the amount of time parents have to devote to child-rearing,” says Falbo. “Only children are more likely to go to university and to a more prestigious school. Everything from family trips to parental participation in the child’s school life may be enhanced because there are more resources and time available.” As for being indulged, Falbo observes the opposite tendency. “Rather than overindulge children, parents may tend to push them to high achievement and have elevated expectations,” he says. “Only children tend to score slightly higher in verbal ability tests, go further in school and have a little bit higher self-esteem.” The reason, it seems, is due to more uninterrupted parental interaction.
When it comes to traits such as maturity, emotional stability and popularity, only children do not differ from others, according to Dr Falbo’s studies. The findings also show no difference between the personalities of first-born children and only children – who were no more selfish, socially awkward, grandiose or needy.
One of her many studies was conducted on a sample of 4,000 children in China, where a whole generation of only children has grown up as a result of China’s one-child policy. Again she found no difference between the character or behaviour of this generation of Chinese children compared to previous ones.
“Factors like education level of the parents, family finances, emotional health and values of the parents, individual parenting styles and the genetic predisposition of the child have far, far more to do with how a child turns out than birth order and family size,” concludes Falbo.
Dr Patricia Nachman, a New York psychologist, supports the view that a lack of siblings can sometimes be an advantage: “The sibling rivalry problem can be very severe for some children,” she says. “Only children don’t have that, at least not in the traditional way. They may get it still with other children in their class and friends.”
So according to the experts, the outlook is good, not just for single offspring but for parents, too. A 2005 study at the University of Pennsylvania found that women with one child are happier than women with more than one child or women with no children. Professor Hans-Peter Kohler concludes: “If you want to maximise your subjective wellbeing, stop at one child”
WHY IT’S GOOD TO BE THE ONE AND ONLY
Intelligence Children who are only children generally score slightly higher on measures of intelligence. Researchers believe this is due to parents having more time to provide a more stimulating environment.
Achievement Only children enjoy much
greater achievement – both academic and
non-academic. Experts believe this is due to parents having much higher expectations
for only children.
Social skills Research shows that only children may belong to fewer organisations, but they have a comparable number of close friends, assume leadership positions in clubs and are happy. Only children marked themselves slightly lower than other groups when it came to needing social contact, but their peers marked them higher for sociability. Researchers conclude that their social competence is high, but their social need may be less strong than others as a result of increased parental affection.
Popularity Results are inconclusive, but experts tend to believe that a child’s position in the family is not a major influence on their popularity.
Self-esteem Different studies have found
that self-esteem is highest in only children.
Relationship with parents Only children show more affection for their parents, are more keen to please and are less likely to rebel against their parents as teenagers.
Selfish traits Experts observe that toddlers and teenagers are more likely to be labelled self-centred, even though their peers are probably behaving similarly at these stages. Research indicates that only children are no more self-regarding than other groups.