Only Child Syndrome Is a Myth

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The Joys and Challenges of Raising Only ChildrenMotortion - Getty Images

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In popular media, big families often seem in vogue; think Eight is Enough, Cheaper By the Dozen, The Loud House, and 19 Kids and Counting. But in reality, the trend is moving in the opposite direction: One-child families are now the fastest growing family unit in the United States.

According to Pew Research Center data, the number of birthing parents who reached the end of their childbearing years with only one child doubled in the last generation — from 11 percent in 1976 to 22 percent in 2015. In some places in Europe, it’s as high as 47 percent. So, what’s driving parents to stop short of the “2.5 kids” stereotype?

Societal factors have spurred the rise of only children.

Concerns about finances, climate change and what’s going on in the world politically are certainly an influence. So is the trend of parents postponing having kids to pursue their own education, careers or other interests, and then either choosing to have one child because of age or encountering fertility issues including secondary infertility, when couples who have been able to get pregnant at least once are not able to do so again.

Changing family configurations and more visibility of single and LGBTQ individuals having children also helps play a part in the rise of onlies, says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a New York psychologist and author of Parenting an Only Child and the forthcoming Just One: The New Science, Secrets & Joy of Parenting an Only Child. “Being a single or gay parent isn’t unusual,” she says, “but single parents might not have the bandwidth for more than one child and gay parents might have more difficulty becoming parents or adopting children.”

there is no reliable scientific evidence that being an only child significantly affects personality behavior or wellbeing
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The former was the case for Sa’iyda Shabazz of Los Angeles. “It ultimately came down to time and energy,” she says. “I was a single parent for six years, and when my wife and I got together we felt that we were too burnt out by life to have the energy needed to raise another child.”

Of course, many of today’s parents are neither financially strapped or unable to conceive; they may just feel that one child makes the most sense for them and their family.

Only children don’t deserve their bad rep, research shows.

But wait, aren’t onlies more selfish, spoiled, or lonely than kids raised with siblings? Is it a bad sign that onlies are on the rise?

Actually, research confirms that the so-called Only Child Syndrome — that a child raised without siblings lacks social skills, is self-centered and isolated — is just a myth and in fact, there is no reliable scientific evidence that being an only child significantly affects personality, behavior, or well-being.

A comprehensive 2019 personality study published in the Journal of Personality Research shows personality is not determined by the presence or absence of siblings. Onlies are not actually self-centered loners, and yet the negative stereotypes persist. Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD., who has written about only children in Psychology Today, explains that “not only are these suppositions impossible to disprove, as there are too many factors affecting personality to isolate just one, there may exist a confirmation bias.” She attributes the persistent stereotypes to people looking for anecdotal evidence to support what they believe about only children.

Indeed, these negative perceptions — that onlies are bossy, narcissistic, and/or anti-social — were debunked long ago. “These myths always had holes in them; research from the ‘70s showed they were just plain wrong,” Newman says. “They are, unfortunately, baked into our culture, like ageism, sexism and other stereotypes. No matter what the research or friends show you, people don’t change their perceptions so easily. And while only children and their parents don’t believe these myths, it’s hard to change the thinking of the general population.”

Fortunately, Newman adds, the negative stereotypes about onlies are being accepted less and less. Not only is the number of onlies tipping up, she says, parents have also become pretty savvy about raising their only children in ways that don’t spoil or isolate them. “The differences between onlies and those raised with siblings are minimal or non-existent,” Newman says. “How a child turns out has more to do with the way parents are raising them than it does with how many siblings they have. Particularly today with the advent of technology. Only children are not as lonely as they are connected all the time through texting and social media. All the tech has reduced the amount of loneliness not only for only children but all children.”

a piece of paper with a drawing of a family of three on it
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Being an only child has many benefits, too.

Thus, for those raising only children — and the children themselves — the good news is that one is not necessarily the loneliest number. Parents, children and research all point to the many advantages of growing up in a one-and-done household.

Parents of one child typically have more energy and more patience as they are not being pulled in multiple directions or constantly having to settle sibling disputes, Newman says. They usually have more time to listen to their child, spend time with both their child and their partner and pursue their own interests.

And although only children are often incorrectly assumed to exist in a lonely bubble from everyone else, Whitbourne says, “They in fact do have a social life outside of the immediate family and are part of many concentric circles that include the extended family, school peers, neighborhood pals and the wider community.”

The biggest challenge for parents of one, Newman continues, is during the first few years when a caregiver will likely spend a bit more time on the floor occupying an only child. “While we take him to the park and extracurricular activities for peer socialization, that my wife and I are his only outlet for socialization at home is probably the most challenging thing,” says Sarah Netter of Chicago, mother of one 10-year-old son. “We are happy to sit and play a board game with him or an art activity, but it’s not the same as whatever adventures multiple kids could have together.”

“That said,” she adds, “there is also no telling whether he and a sibling would have even gotten along or enjoyed each other's company.” However, only children who might spend more time alone in the early years, says Newman, may become more resilient and better able to entertain themselves than those with siblings. “I spent a lot of time alone, which allowed me to learn how to fill my own time when my parents were busy,” says Ariel Censor of Philadelphia. “I also think that having to come up with ways to amuse myself made me more creative.”

Once the child grows past the playing-on-the-floor stage, Newman says, “It’s pretty much smooth sailing, especially when you make plans for holidays and vacations to include relatives, cousins or friends close in age to the child,” if they’re available. And many parents of onlies find it easy to travel with one child and expose them to different experiences that they might not have been able to afford or navigate with a bigger family.

Positives for the child are typically close bonds with their parents that in turn, provide a strong sense of security and trust that carries into adulthood, Newman says. “Growing up an only child has made me realize how important it is to have attention from a parental figure that's absolute,” says Michaela Levy, 17, of Potomac, MD, who, if she has children, would only want one. “It creates a special bond between child and parent consisting of trust and transparency.” Another benefit, Newman adds, “Is the absence of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry — including sibling bullying or abuse — that can chip away at a child’s self-esteem.”

Only children have also been shown to have certain edges academically because all their parents’ resources are funneled to them. “Being the recipient of parents’ time, attention, and resources allow for greater exposure to different people and places, all of which enhance vocabulary and language,” Newman says.

But being an only is not without its challenges.

On the flip side, onlies may spend more time alone than they’d like. “Only children may be jealous of other families and wish they had automatic playmates,” Whitbourne says. “Then again, they might be greatly relieved not to have a big brother bossing them around or a younger sister trailing after them and getting into their stuff.”

Ariel’s mom Catherine Censor of Athens, NY, says, “As a kid, my daughter watched friends struggle with sibling rivalry and squabbles. She seemed very aware of the drawbacks of having to share psychic and physical space with another family member. But as an adult,” she continues, “these concerns have faded, and she sees the benefits of having a ‘built-in best friend for life’ as more compelling.”

it is the parenting approach more than the number of siblings that a child does or doesnt have that contributes to raising a happy well adjusted child
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Another challenge faced by onlies is the flip side of having all that parental attention — some of these children may feel that they receive too much of it and wish that their parents would give them a little more space. “While it’s great having all of the attention on me, it can also be challenging at times,” says J Carter Rose of Greenwich, CT. Adds Samantha Drake* of Miami, “I get extra attention, but there’s also nowhere to hide and no one else to blame things on.”

Finally, as their parents age, onlies may feel the physical, emotional, and/or financial burdens of taking care of them without being able to share those responsibilities with a sibling. Suzan Rose of Greenwich, CT, an only child and mom to J Carter Rose, had no regrets on that front. “My husband bonded with my parents,” she says, “and took the place of a sibling for me in caring for them in their old age.”

The Bottom Line

“It is the parenting approach more than the number of siblings that a child does or doesn’t have that contributes to raising a happy, well-adjusted child,” Newman says. “Parents are the best teachers; they instill the foundation, structure, and skills a child takes into the world and equips him to function well and to be kind and supportive of others yet know how to protect himself and be resilient.”

Jacqui Schein, a parent of one in New York City, agrees. “I think that as long as children grow up feeling loved, supported and safe — whether with siblings or not — they can go on to be productive adults,” she says.

The fact that your child doesn’t have siblings neither hurts or benefits them,” Whitbourne says. “Being an only child is not in itself significant in terms of personality, behavior, or well-being. And valuing your relationship with your child and allowing yourself to trust your instincts, is the best advice for raising any child.”

How to Raise Happy Only Children

Raising an only child? Social psychologist Susan Newman, PhD, offers these recommendations:


Socialize your child early and often when young. Playdates, preschool, classes, or clubs will help them develop the social skills people used to think only came from siblings.

Promote your child’s friendships. Some may become sibling substitutes and provide a lifelong support system.

Put older children in group activities. Participating in team sports or group extracurriculars like band will ensure that they’re not always the center of attention.

Act as if you had a houseful of kids. Assign chores and set boundaries and responsibilities.


Keep your child center stage. They shouldn’t believe that they run the family.

Say yes to every want and whim. This only encourages a sense of entitlement.

Over-schedule your child or fill all their free time. While you want them to socialize, you also want them to experience the benefits of boredom.

Think you must be the perfect parent because you have just one child — and that that child must be perfect, too. Let yourselves off the hook!

*Name and identifying details changed for privacy reasons

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