Is it time to debunk the only child syndrome?

    SPOILED, SELFISH, ANTISOCIAL, LONELY. Words that are most of the time associated with only children, yet the world has people with those same characteristics and many of them do have siblings. So, why does today’s society still associate those negative traits with only children?

    The origins of the only child syndrome

    This term has been around for a very long time, to be more precise the 1800s. G. Stanley Hall and E.W. Bohannon, two child psychologists did a study on children in which they wanted to categorize children with a number of different traits, and ultimately their study was published in early 1900. This study has been quoted by many people throughout time and what it mainly states is that children without siblings have negative behavioral traits. E.W. Bohannon concluded that only children were peculiar in a disadvantageous way.

    Having said that, because the study was conducted in a time were precise science was not as we know it now, is it time to stop labeling only children in a negative way?

    In the 70s, Toni Falbo, a very famous social psychologist, known for her research on power dynamics in relationships, sibling status, and development of only children, established that the extra attention a child receives can be a positive. She stated that only children achieved more than those with siblings. She believes that only children have less need for attachments because they weren’t deprived of affection when growing up.

    In 1986, Falbo, in collaboration with Denise F Polit, published Quantitative Review of the Only Child Literature. Research Evidence and Theory Development. Toni Falbo analyzed 115 studies on only children, in which their achievements, character, intelligence, adjustment, sociability, and parent-child relationship were examined. Falbo concluded that when compared to families with multiple children, only children surpassed several groups in the areas of character, achievement, and intelligence. The evaluation of these studies also showed that only children had better parent-child relationships.

    In 2004, Jacques D Marleau, Jean-Jacques Breton, Gisèle Chiniara and Jean-François Saucier wanted to test the findings of a study published in 1996, Are only children different? A study of child psychiatric referrals (H Richards, R Goodman). These researchers gathered data from 169 children under the age of 5, seen in the psychiatric department of a large pediatric hospital in Montreal, Quebec. They concluded that there is no difference between children without siblings and children with one sibling when it comes to mental health, at least in children under age 5.

    The most recent study related to this topic dates back to 2019. Published by German researchers Michael Dufner, Mitja D. Back, Franz F. Oehme, and Stefan C. Schmukle, The End of a Stereotype: Only Children Are Not More Narcissistic Than People With Siblings emphasized narcissism as a bad personality trait mostly associated with only children. Even though their research was limited to the German population, it was concluded that only children are not more narcissistic than those with siblings. Additional tests in other countries were requested by them so that this research can be extended, and with time this could be proven somewhere else.

    The current youth without siblings

    “As a child, I didn’t want siblings at all, there was no particular reason”, says Andreea Pelivan. At that time, her parents were going through a divorce, so having siblings was something she did not want at the age of 8. However, since being a teenager and living with her mother, her perspective changed and now at the age of 21, she wishes she had had a sibling. She believes that would complete her family.

    “I don’t consider myself a spoiled child because it wasn’t always easy, even though I was the only child”- Andreea Pelivan

    Andreea wants society to stop assuming that people without siblings should be considered “lucky”.

    While growing up in Romania, Delia Degan wished she had someone to play with while her parents were either at work or doing something else. “I wanted to [have siblings] because I had friends who had brothers or sisters and they were always talking about their siblings, what they did, that they got clothes or a game from them”.

    She does consider herself a spoiled child because whenever she wanted something, her parents always indulged her. When relatives came to visit, they brought her presents and, in her family, at least when growing up, she was always the center of attention.

    “You were made by mistake”, a common joke Delia has had to listen to too many times. Even though she has never been publicly labeled with the negative words that are commonly associated with being an only child, this joke has been something she has had to endure. People close to her don’t consider her a spoiled person because she always shares with others what she has. “If I have a packet of biscuits, I share them because that’s how I was educated”, says Delia.

    For Florin Drâmbărean it was a bit different, compared to Andreea Pelivan and Delia Degan. He liked being an only child because he always noticed how others who had siblings weren’t that different from him. “I’ve always considered myself a little spoiled by my parents, probably because I’m an only child, but that stuff has never affected me”, says Florin.

    Alexandra Borșan dealt with society and its harsh words from time to time, and it is something she wishes one day would change. “You’re obviously an only child”. When Alexandra was younger, she used to get this phrase quite a lot. “People would ask, so do you consider yourself a spoiled person? Yes, I’m aware, I had some advantages, however in different scenarios, those would turn into disadvantages”, Alexandra says.

    The mental health of those without siblings

    Psychologist Claudia Chiorean, believes that the occurrence of mental disorders, as diagnosed by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), presupposes a correlation between the vulnerability of the individual, which implies genetic availability, and the presence of a stressor. This binomial, vulnerability and stress, can be influenced by the context of the single child. But the extent to which it can be influenced depends very much on the particular situation or factors in place.

    Factors such as:

    In the family – Parental role models, parental education, values, principles that parents hold.

    In society – school, group of friends, peers, life partner, community, society as a whole, norms, rules, principles and values of life, own experiences throughout life. When asked if she believes that negative behaviors can also occur among children in large families, she stated that a child, alone or with several siblings, can develop a set of disorders under the pressure of stressors like an illness, war, death of a loved one, loss of partners, etc.

    What do people with siblings think about this matter?

    “As a child, I was glad I had siblings because I was never alone. But during and after my teen years I would have rather be an only child” – Orestis Koliandris

    “In my opinion, growing up with siblings is better. They become your best friends and are part of your family. Having siblings makes you care more about others, prepares you for the future, and helps you with not becoming selfish” – Antonela Fani

    “The majority of people that I have met that do not have siblings come across as rude, thinking that they need to have everything, and the rest do not deserve the same. However, not every only child is like that” – Elisa Bejenar

    “I think maybe they are privileged (only children) because all the attention goes to them. But I wouldn’t think that is an advantage to them” – Anxhelo Naqellari

    Even though scientific proof is still being conducted and debunking the only child syndrome is still in order, it is a fact that people are the way they are due to many factors. Having siblings is something that can help shape the character of a person but ultimately children grow up and what they were then are most of the time not what they are as adults.

    Is it time to fully debunk this so-called syndrome that has existed since the 1800s, or should today’s society continue to stereotype only children?