Most of us cling to one stereotype or another. Unintentionally, we may hold on to stereotypes about race, firstborn or youngest children, single women, childless women, older people, or gender. For example, researchers found that girls as young as 6 associate a high level of intellectual ability, such as brilliance or genius, with men more than women.
However, sometimes thinking can be changed by the facts. There is no longer a scientific basis for hanging on to the myths that only children are lacking in some way—that they are lonely, spoiled, selfish, and dependent—as many early studies tried to prove.
The once-persistent stereotypes date back to 1896 to psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who initiated the stigmas. Others in the field followed Hall’s lead and perpetuated the myths in their own findings, ignoring those who questioned their validity. The results from a large 1931 study comparing a clinical population with “non-problem children” disputed the negative thinking at the time: “The distribution of children’s behavior problems appears to be for the most part independent of size of family,” researchers concluded nearly a century ago in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
For more than 50 years, other researchers questioned the veracity of the pervasive only-child stereotypes, yet only-child myths persisted. But, by the 1970s, scholars conducted larger and better-designed studies and analyses than Hall’s and his followers’ and punched holes in those stereotypes. In 1977, Toni Falbo, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a prominent psychologist in the field of only-child development, did an in-depth analysis and found that “the popular misconception of only children as selfish, lonely, or maladjusted is not supported.”
In a 1986 review of more than 100 related studies, Dr. Falbo reinforced her earlier findings noting that “across all developmental outcomes, only children were indistinguishable from firstborns and people from small families.” She came to similar conclusions again 1993 and 2012.
Dr. Judith Blake, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, spent years investigating only children in America. In 1981 and after, she too discovered that much of the bias about only children is mistaken. She refuted many of the then-prevailing beliefs that only children are “isolated, less successful and socially clumsy.” She wrote, “The performance of only children belies the prejudice.”
Fearing “Little Emperors”
Because China enforced a strict one-child policy from roughly 1979 to 2015, it has a large population of only children to study. Many parents there and elsewhere fear that their child would become a “little emperor.” By 2021, as the study’s title suggests, “They are not Little Emperors: Only children are just as altruistic as non-only children.” According to the authors, “This research indicates that the negative stereotype regarding the altruistic behavior of only children is an incorrect prejudice.”
A similar study in Germany, “The end of a stereotype: Only children are not more narcissistic than people with siblings,” showed that even in cultures like China where older adults may continue to believe some of the only-child stigmas, only children are not narcissistic and selfish. Logic, which often goes out the window when dealing with stereotypes or long-held beliefs, indicates that only children who want to keep friends learn quickly that being selfish and making everything about themselves or feeling that they deserve more is not their ticket to building close relationships. It makes sense that the narcissistic only-child stereotype doesn’t hold up.
Nor does the thinking that only children are lonely. Research in 2021 on loneliness, the stereotype, and the realities among Chinese only children and children with siblings concluded, “Chinese only children reported lower levels of loneliness than their counterparts with siblings.” That only children are not lonely children has been the finding in many studies and verified again in the data collected from my current Only Child Research Project.
The End of Only-Child Bashing
Name a stereotype, and it has likely been handedly refuted. It’s not only scientific investigations that say “enough is enough” with only-child bashing. Today, parents of one child and only children themselves understand the fallacies in the one-child stereotypes. They dismiss or ignore the old stereotypes and accept what the research has been telling us.
During interviews for the Only Child Research Project, my participants, particularly those age 50 or younger, indicated not only the absurdity but also the diminishing attention being paid to the formerly demeaning only-child labels. Significantly, most younger only children and parents don’t think about or believe the stereotypes that previously plagued parents and their only children.
A few grown only children I spoke with mentioned some cultural nuance around how they were treated and perceived. “I always experienced being different, but my 18-year-old daughter hasn’t experienced that at all,” Beatrice,* 51, told me.
When asked about being lonely, only child Diane,* now 32, says she enjoyed her alone time doing creative activities. She played library and wrote books in her head before she could read or write. She also played school, acting out being the teacher and the students. “As an adult, I still need quiet time,” she feels. Nonetheless, like so many savvy parents of only children, her parents were always tracking down friends for her to fend off the possibility that their daughter might feel lonely.
When asked if and how the only-child stereotypes affected her, Cristina,* 42, an only child who has a 7-year-old only child, said that “being an only child was not a topic of conversation, so I never thought much about it. Being an only child was unremarkable. It wasn’t a big deal when I was growing up the ’80s.”
Today, being an only child is even less of a “big deal.” Stereotypes once pinned to only children haven’t held up to scrutiny. To believe that only children are destined to be lonely, selfish, or maladjusted is to disregard the evidence that proves otherwise.
*Names of study participants in the Only Child Research Project have been changed to protect identities.
Copyright @2022 by Susan Newman
Related: 9 Reasons Why “Just One” Child May Be Just Right for You