Forget the clichés about only children!


Being an only child is a “disease in itself,” said Stanley G. Hall , a 19th  century psychologist  . Although his views and research methods have long been questioned and criticized, the reputation that only children have for being spoiled , overprotected and lonely has not changed.

If you are the parent of an only child, you may have worried that growing up without siblings could affect your child’s social skills. But research has shown that only children are no different from their peers with siblings when it comes to their character and sociability.

Research I have conducted with colleagues has shown that the performance of only children on cognitive tests is similar to that of children who grow up with only one sibling.

Additionally, we wanted to know whether differences or similarities between only children and children with siblings might be more related to the characteristics of their parents than to whether or not they have siblings.

We found that only children’s cognitive development at age 11 is more influenced by things like their parents’ relationship and their family’s socioeconomic status than by whether or not they have brothers. and sisters. The financial and emotional resources available to the household as a whole may be more critical to children’s futures than the number of children with whom they must share these resources.

A variety of family structures

The study used data from British cohorts . Representative at the national level, they follow the lives of groups of 5,362 children born in 1946, 17,416 born during the same week in 1958, 16,571 born during the same week in 1970 and 19,244 born around the year 2001 in Great Britain. This data gathers extensive information about group members and their families, including parental education level, social class, and family structure.

To measure children’s development, we looked at the results of cognitive tests that study participants took when they were 10 or 11 years old, which assessed their verbal skills.

Only children had similar cognitive outcomes to children from two-child families, and higher outcomes than children growing up with two or more siblings. However, the only child “advantage” appears to be smaller in the 2001 group than in previous cohorts.

We were able to show that the variations observed from one generation to the next could be partially attributed to the characteristics of families and their changes. In Britain, families with only one child tend to be better off on average than others. However, over time, being an only child has become increasingly associated with potentially disadvantageous conditions, such as growing up with separated parents.

It is the changing composition of one-child families that helps explain why, compared to the past, only children today have a smaller advantage over children growing up with siblings.

Before siblings, consider the social characteristics of households

Overall, the results suggest that having or not having siblings does not have a large impact – or at least has a smaller impact – compared to other family characteristics. For example, our research has shown that growing up in a disadvantaged home appears to have a greater effect on children’s cognitive test scores than being an only child or growing up with siblings.

The findings also suggest that it is time to abandon the perspective that only children constitute a single group sharing particular traits.

Instead, we should accept the idea that there are likely a variety of different pathways that lead to having an only child, including by choice or due to external circumstances. These pathways, in turn, influence and shape children’s outcomes and life trajectories.

Being an only child is neither a concept nor a timeless experience. It depends on the evolution of societies and the diversity of families who have only children. This change of approach in our way of seeing and studying this reality will not only improve our understanding of it, but also eliminate the stereotypes that still persist in society in general.

Author Bio: Alice Goisis is Associate Professor of Demography and Deputy Research Director in the Center for Longitudinal Studies at UCL