The Real Meaning Of "Only Child Syndrome"

Photographed by Megan Madden.
Whether you are one or you know one, most of us have a perception of what we think only children are like — and unfortunately, these views of only children are not always positive.
People often assume that only children are spoiled, self-centered, aggressive, narcissistic, dependent, weird, and don't work well with others. Think about the fictional Blair Waldorfs, Veruca Salts, and Veronica Lodges of the world. Some people refer to this cocktail of characteristics as "only child syndrome," which obviously isn't a real medical condition, but attempts to explain the personality traits of only children.
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These myths about only children first began back in the 1800s, when people lived on farms, and sibling-less children were isolated, says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist who has written two books about raising only children. Nowadays, kids are socialized at much younger ages through daycare and school, so "this idea that your only child will be lonely doesn’t hold up anymore," she says. In fact, numerous studies have debunked most of the negative myths about only children. According to researchers, they're actually not as terrible as everyone thinks.
But even though most of these stereotypes aren't supported, the family structure that someone grows up in undoubtedly shapes the way that they develop and act in their adult life — and that includes whether or not they have siblings. For example, only children tend to be more independent, and better at entertaining themselves than those with siblings, Dr. Newman notes. Ali, a 25-year-old only child, says that she's an introvert by nature, which she attributes to spending a lot of time alone as a kid. "As an adult, I'm 100% comfortable with being alone and not seeing another person all day," she says. "I was used to being alone as a kid, and being alone as an adult doesn't bother me."
Since only children don't necessarily have a built-in reference group or companion, they might also learn to rely more on their friends, says Geoffrey Greif, PhD, professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and co-author of Adult Sibling Relationships. This can be good and bad, says Gracie, a 29-year-old only child who often finds herself seeking companionship, which means she has to be intentional about carving out alone time. "It’s been important for me to realize how much value there is in my alone time being a choice," she says.
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On the flip side, it's often assumed that only children are terrible in relationships, because they're self-centered and unable to compromise. "I definitely feel more important than I am," admits Erin, a 30-year-old only child. But she also constantly worries about what people think or feel about what she does or says. Nick, a 27-year-old only child, says sometimes his only-child status comes up in the context of his relationship. "It can be annoying in a relationship, because it can often be ammunition for arguments," he says.
Growing up as the center of attention can be a blessing and a curse, though. "Being born into a family that only wants one child can be a lovely experience, where the child is exposed to a range of adult activities, like travel, at an early age and gets exposed to more intellectually stimulating things," Dr. Greif says. Indeed, only children may be presented with more opportunities for education than people with siblings, and get to spend more time with their parents, Dr. Newman says. Nick believes that relationships between parents and only children are "much more grand," he says. "I always felt confident talking with adults in my childhood and feel my single-child upbringing cultivated strong communication skills."
This is all to say that we should try to un-learn many of the stereotypes we have about only children. At a time when people are having fewer kids in general, these negative beliefs about only children can be "crazy-making" for people who are thinking about having only one child, Dr. Newman says. The number of siblings you have influences just one aspect of your upbringing — but it doesn't paint the whole picture. So, for every Blair Waldorf type, there's a Wonder Woman who totally doesn't fit the traditional only child mold. And, Dr. Newman adds, "people with siblings can be selfish, too."
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