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How Much Do You Know About Only Children?

U.S. News & World Report - Health logo U.S. News & World Report - Health 4/12/2018 Susan Newman

Happy family talking in a living room at home: As the average size of families continues to shrink, a significant proportion are one-child families. © (Getty Images) As the average size of families continues to shrink, a significant proportion are one-child families. Test your only child knowledge with this quiz.

No matter how much research debunks age-old only child stereotypes, many people still cling to them. Often, those who know an only child, couples “on the fence” about having a second child, or those who are simply judgmental tout the myths as truths. Even some parents with one child and no plans to grow their family believe them.

Some only child stereotypes date back centuries, while others arose relatively recently. New or old, the stigmas and perceptions of singletons hold strong. How much do you really know about only children? Test your only child knowledge.

True or False?

Which statements are rooted in fact and which ones are outright wrong or, at the least, seriously flawed or misleading?

  1. Because they don’t have any siblings, only children are more likely to be selfish.
  2. In Seattle, nearly 47 percent of families are one-child families.
  3. Only children are “aggressive, egotistical and jealous.”
  4. Many only children are more independent than children with brothers or sisters.
  5. Only children are less agreeable than children from larger families.
  6. Only children have more imaginary friends than children with siblings.
  7. Only children excel in several areas, including academics and achievement.
  8. Only children are at a disadvantage because they do not have the learning opportunities inherent in sibling interaction.
  9. Only children are lonelier than children with brothers and sisters.

Answers: How Did You Do?

As a parent I was questioned and admonished for not giving my son a sibling. That was several decades ago and the negativity surrounding my child’s sibling-less status prompted my research, and ultimately led to "The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide," one of two books I devoted to being and raising an only child.

The answers below will help you brush up on only child facts and dispel persistent fictions. Hopefully, the information and insights will alter any misconceptions you may have.

1. False. Almost every child at one point or another believes the world revolves around him. “Selfish means you are thinking of yourself as opposed to others,” explains Michael Lewis, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, and director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “The youngster who is unable to take the view of another is going to appear selfish.” There are points in people’s lives 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. During the toddler and teen years, for example, all parents can expect their kids to act selfishly at times whether or not they have siblings.

2. True. The average size of an American family has been shrinking, from nearly four children in 1960 to about two kids today, according to the latest statistics from the Pew Research Center. Like England, which has been called the one-child nation in recent years, Seattle and Canada are approaching 50 percent one-child families. Increasingly couples in many major U.S. cities – such as Los Angeles and New York – have one child, and it is a trend seen in many developed countries.

3. False. The “aggressive, egotistical and jealous” stereotype is far from new. In 1896, psychologist G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, pronounced that only children had these attributes and concluded, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.” Unfortunately, the unflattering tags have stuck in our culture in one form or another.

4. True. Because of adult guidance and a lack of siblings to lean on, only children are generally more self-reliant and independent than those who have brothers and sisters to run interference, protect or fend for them, as I've found in analyzing the research and from doing several hundred interviews with only children for my two books on the topic.

5. False. Siblings from three countries – the U.S. (5,240), Germany (10,457) and England (4,489) – were studied to find birth order effects on personality. The researchers determined, as have others who include “only child” as a birth order, “that birth order does not have a lasting effect on broad personality traits outside of the intellectual domain.” As noted in the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they “consistently found no birth order effects on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness or imagination.”

6. False. Many wrongly seem to think that because only children have more alone time that they create more pretend or fantasy pals. Experts in the field of childhood behaviors at the Gesell Institute of Human Development in New Haven, Connecticut feel imaginary friends are a natural and healthy part of development.

Marjorie Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and author of "Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them," studied preschoolers through 7 years of age and discovered that 65 percent of all children have make-believe friends at some point in their young lives. Taylor also challenges the stereotypical view of only children and firstborns as the basic creators of imaginary friends: “It is not solely children who are firstborns or who have no siblings who create imaginary companions," she writes in her book, "and the appearance of an imaginary companion in the lives of these children is not necessarily a sign of loneliness or psychological distress.”

7. True. In terms of the level of education, aspirations and achievement, firstborns and only children excel. For only children, that can be explained by the dilution theory. This perspective posits that parental resources are finite and that siblings end up reducing the amount of time, attention and financial resources any one child can receive.

8. False. Some sibling relationships are very positive, with older siblings actively teaching younger ones, as one study found. But this in no way means that siblings always have a positive and educational influence on each other. Often sibling interactions smack of rivalry and disagreement, and require constant parental intervention with little or no teaching, whereas only children learn from the extra time and attention parents provide, the friends they make and the experiences they have. Relying on the fact that your children might teach each other is probably not a sound reason to add to your family.

9. False. In this day and age, with children’s early socialization in day care, play groups, endless after-school activities, and the ability to connect with friends via technology as children get older, parents should worry less than ever before about having a lonely only child.

When researchers asked 13,500 children in grades seven through 12 to name 10 friends, the only children were just as popular as their peers with siblings, making up for any social deficit that might have appeared at age 5. The bottom line according to the authors of the 2013 study published in the Journal of Family Issues: "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 children without siblings had just as many friends as children with siblings. Or, put another way, growing up without brothers and sisters does not harm the development of social skills. Surely, there are benefits to having siblings, but being accepted and included are not among them.

Given the realities of only children, it’s time for those with prejudices to rethink their positions and information. The facts reveal that only children are pretty much like other children who have brothers and sisters. How a child develops has more to do with the parents’ approach to rearing than it does with the number of siblings a child does or doesn’t have.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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