Busting the myths of being the only child

At the top of the heap of opinions, is an old favourite: Only children are spoiled, entitled, selfish, are all about themselves and don’t know how to compromise

By Kavita Srinivasan

Published: Thu 26 Jan 2023, 10:18 PM

More and more people around the world are choosing to stop at one child. In 2017, 40 per cent of families had one child in the UK; 23 per cent in the US and 38.6 per cent in Canada (Walker/BBC, 2021). The reasons for the changing size of families is manifold, from having children at a later age to financial limitations and being away from family, to simply being happy with having one and done. Whilst this is a deeply personal choice, opinions abound. Everyone has something to say about a choice that is only yours and your family’s to make. At the top of the heap of opinions, is an old favourite: Only children are spoiled, entitled, selfish, are all about themselves and don’t know how to compromise.

The ‘only child syndrome’ was popularised by psychologist G Stanley Hall in the 1800s and early 1900s. His research claimed that only children became “narcissistic adults” and “being an only child is a disease in itself)” (BBC, 2021).

These studies were carried out during a time that is very different from the modern world. The research is dated and the problem is that a lot of people have bought into this narrative and made choices that may not have been best for their mental health or their family. More recent studies have entirely different results:

The extra attention an only child gets from his/her parents is positive

Toni Falbo, a renowned psychologist, has conducted numerous studies on the only child syndrome and found that the extra attention that society deems as dangerous, actually benefits the child. They grow up secure and not deprived of parental presence and have strong, close bonds with their parents. Secure individuals go on to have healthy relationships as adults. The security they received at home stays within their nervous systems and bodies all their lives. They do not need to seek on the outside what they already carry within.

Only children are socially awkward

Only children have plenty of opportunity to socialise and actually develop strong and deep friendships. Jing Xu, a professor of anthropology in the University of Washington, found that only children were actually more adjusting than their peers with siblings. They had to make more of an effort to get along with children to have playmates.

Only children know how to spend time with themselves

Being able to be with themselves is an invaluable life skill that only children have natural opportunities to equip themselves with. Being bored and learning to fend for oneself is a huge advantage in life.

The lack of financial stress

Parents of only children are less stressed about the financial burden of supporting their family. With happier parents who have more time and energy to tend to their own lives as well, a child is naturally happier.

There are disadvantages to being an only child, of course. Having conflict between parents puts the child in the traumatic position of being the mediator, which results in deep loneliness. Additionally, the lack of a playmate to fight with on a constant basis, provides less opportunity for an only child to learn how to stand up for themselves.

We are so quick, as a society, to label children. Being an only child is not a blanket trait that explains deficiencies in a child’s behaviour. Times have changed as have circumstances. Let us prioritise the mental health of families instead of having arbitrary opinions on what a family ‘should’ look like. This is the future.


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