Spoiled Brats or High Achievers? 10 Facts & Myths About Only Children

Wendy Robinson | Jul 21, 2016 Big Kid
Spoiled Brats or High Achievers? 10 Facts & Myths About Only Children

Confession time: Growing up in a family with four kids, I admit the idea of being an only child used to seem kind of, well, weird to me. Sometimes, especially when a certain sister of mine was stealing my Barbies, it sounded amazing. But it also seemed like it might be kind of lonely. And, without siblings, how do people learn to share? Or put the heads back on Barbies?

It turns out that there has been a lot of research done on the experiences of only children, and it turns out that they do learn to share and are actually pretty happy-- most of the time.

Read on for more surprising facts about what research says about life with -- and as -- an only child. 



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  • Parental Happiness

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    When it comes to perceptions of happiness, one is the magic number. According to sociologist Hans-Peter Kohler, parents report feeling happier after having their first child but their levels of happiness either stay the same (for men) or actually drop (for women) with the arrival of a second child. 

  • Transition to School

    Image via iStock.com/BraunS

    The more that you research the experience, the more that you realize that there are both pluses and negatives to being a solo child. One of the potential drawbacks is that children who have at least one sibling appear to have an easier time making the transition into kindergarten than only kids do. Researchers surveyed 20,000 teachers nationally and found that they rated students with siblings as being better able to show sensitivity to the feelings of others and to get along with people who are different. 

    More from CafeMom: 20 Completely Unselfish Reasons Moms Stop at One Child

  • Making Friends

    Image via iStock.com/Christopher Futcher

    One of the concerns that people sometimes have about only children is that they will struggle to form relationships and to make friends. 

    The good news, according to Dr. Susan Newman, is that only children are just as popular with their peers by middle school, even accounting for the fact that onlies sometimes face more of an adjustment when starting school. So, don't worry, moms of only children: You're still going to have to buy countless birthday party gifts, just like moms with more than one!

  • Great Personalities

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    Want your kid to be "significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment"? Well, just don't give them any siblings and you're on the way!

    According to a large scale review of the scientific literature on only children, it turns out that only children are primed to be high achieving and well adjusted, possibly due to having more of their parents' time and resources. 

    As someone who had many siblings who were happy to tell me that I was a twerp and parents who were spread thin, I say this sounds reasonable to me!

  • Bad Research

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    Most people have heard the stereotypes about only children: they are lonely, spoiled, and even selfish. But most people probably don't realize that those stereotypes come from seriously out-of-date and poorly conducted research. 

    Over 100 years ago, a psychologist named Granville Stanley conducted a study called "Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children" in which he described only children as oddballs and permanent misfits. Although his methods and findings have since been discredited, the stereotypes he created continue today. 

  • Still Uncommon

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    While the number of families with only one child has been steadily growing since the 1960s, less than a quarter of American families feature only children. 

    Interestingly, US Census data indicates that the number of families with only children increase as you look at bigger cities. So, if you are a family with one child looking to connect with other "one and done" families, New York City might be the best for you.

  • Divorce Risks

    Image via iStock.com/ lofilolo

    When it comes to reducing the probability that you'll get divorced, more is better in terms of siblings. According to research from Ohio State University, people from large families are less likely to get divorced than only children. Researcher Donna Bobbitt-Zeher speculates that those who grow up with siblings may give people "the experience with personal relationships that would help you in marriage". So, for those of us with multiple kids, at least this is one area where that sibling conflict might actually be useful!

  • The Caregiver Burden

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    While much of the research on only children has been focused on what they are like as kids and how they navigate their personal relationships like marriage, a new area of focus is looking at how being an only child impacts individual stress levels associated with becoming a parental caregiver in later life. 

    For only children, the work of caring for an aging or ill parent, something that over 60 million people will face, can't be shared with a sibling. Researchers are now studying how that will impact the health and happiness of adult children. Stay tuned for more findings!

  • Academic Succes

    Image via iStock.com/dolgachov

    When it comes to success in school, only children and firstborns have the advantage, according to research looking at academic success measures, including the amount of time spent on homework and educational aspirations. Researchers suspect that this could be a result of extra parental attention, something that declines as sibilings compete for time and resources. 

  • Wish for Siblings?

    Image via iStock.com/Guasor

    One of the persistent stereotypes is that only children wish for siblings and feel short-changed not to have a built-in playmate. The truth is that there isn't research that supports that idea and, in fact, there is anecdotal evidence from one only-child researcher that the lonely-for-a-sibling myth is just that -- a myth.


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