Enough Already

Sorry, But Only Child Syndrome Is A Garbage Myth — Here’s Why

We asked two psychologists how “real” it actually is.

Although largely debunked as a myth, "only child syndrome" still has real-life implications.
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People looooove to dole out unsolicited advice about parenting, especially if you make the decision to be in the "one and done" camp. For some reason, having one kid still seems to ruffle so many feathers, despite the fact that there are endless expert-backed benefits to raising an only child. Among the most annoying feedback you'll hear? Commentary about "only child syndrome," aka this deeply rooted, weirdly ingrained societal belief that only children become spoiled, entitled, selfish, or maladjusted, unable to fit in socially amongst their peers.

Whether your family unit is complete after one kiddo or you are an only child yourself, it's honestly impossible to avoid chatter about this elusive "only child syndrome," and quite frankly, it's annoying AF.

So, what's the deal? Is it a real thing? Is it rooted in any actual psychology or science? We tapped two psychologists to unpack the myth of the "only child."

What is "only child syndrome," and where did it come from?

Licensed psychologist Dr. Lindsay Popilskis of Pathways of Rockland County tells Scary Mommy that the notion of "only child syndrome" was coined by two psychologists named G. Stanley Hall and E. W. Bohannon in the late 1800s. The duo utilized a 200-person questionnaire to survey and categorize children with a number of different personality traits, concluding that only children "possess a multitude of negative behavioral characteristics, even going so far as labeling only children as a 'disease in itself,'" says Popilskis. Among the traits they called out: "spoiled, selfish/self-absorbed, maladjusted, bossy, antisocial, and lonely."

Their report was published in the early 1900s, with Popilskis noting the pair's conclusion "that children are mentally healthier, overall, when they have siblings." Therefore, "only child syndrome" was born, launching a thousand backhanded comments about how only children are somehow the root cause of every societal ill.

Is it based on any actual science?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, "only child syndrome" isn't rooted in any real science, says licensed psychologist Dr. Francyne Zeltser of Manhattan Psychology Group. The reason why? It's based solely on survey data, which Zeltser says is "inherently flawed as a sole means of drawing conclusions" due to its subjectivity — i.e., it's based on the survey taker's personal feelings and opinions. "While scientifically sound research may include surveys, it often includes objective measures (i.e., behavioral data) that are not influenced by personal feelings or opinions and represent facts," says Zeltser.

"Despite the popularity of 'only child syndrome,' this theory has not been replicated in more recent publications," adds Popilskis. "Studies continue to support the notion that lacking a sibling does not hamper children's social-emotional success later on in life. In other words, only children are far from doomed to an antisocial lifestyle. Research surveys [like Hall and Bohannon's] possess inherent flaws and cannot usually be generalized to the population at large."

Are there real-life implications?

Even though it's solidly debunked, the stigma of only children prevails, causing strife for parents and their kids alike. "Only children receive a bad rep as spoiled, isolated, and lacking proper social skills," says Popilskis. "Even into adulthood, only children are labeled as hypersensitive and selfish individuals with little regard for those around them. Despite a lack of evidence, people are quick to point out when someone they are unhappy with is an only child and attribute others' idiosyncrasies or faults to growing up as only children."

As Popilskis points out: "Children without any siblings go through the same developmental cycles that children with siblings go through. And while environment does have an impact on a child's personality, there are other major determinants such as genetics and personal life events that impact an individual's personality."

She adds, "I'm sure many of us know at least one person that comes from a multi-child household that displays some of the traits associated with the stereotype of only child syndrome while knowing individuals that come from single-child households that don't exhibit these stereotypical traits."

These biases can definitely do some psychological damage to solo kiddos, says Zeltser. "When someone expects another person to act in a certain way, they often look for signs or indicators of that behavior that would not otherwise be obvious or even observed. More specifically, all children — with and without siblings — have good moments and trying ones. Only children are often judged as having difficulty sharing or trouble not getting their way; in reality, many children — even those with siblings — struggle with those things."

Hard truth: You might be inadvertently making things worse for your kid, whether you have one or multiple. When parents find humor or joke around about having one child, "even when it is said in jest during a social engagement, it plants a seed in others' minds that the child's faults or developmental hurdles are due to not having a sibling (e.g., learning to share)," says Popilskis. "Additionally, parents will often comment to their friends that they can provide more or better tangible items to their child because they are only financially responsible for one child. This perpetuates the notion that only children are more spoiled or doted upon than families with multiple children. Finally, if parents of only children allude to the fact that their children receive undivided attention, this can perpetuate the notion that siblings learn to share attention and time with one another, while only children do not."

How can you break the "only child syndrome" stigma?

Thankfully, both pros emphasize that there are plenty of positive aspects to raising a single kiddo. "Oftentimes, solo children are self-reliant, independent thinkers who can entertain themselves and find comfort in spending time alone," says Popilskis. "Parents can also try to refrain from using 'only child syndrome' as a response to teachers or friends when they discuss areas of child development, such as learning to share or problem-solving with others."

"Parents of singles and multiples can show solidarity and compassion to each other by acknowledging that parenting, in general, is both wonderful and challenging," adds Zeltser. "All children are different; they all have their attributes and areas of growth. Many children with siblings have social struggles, and many only children thrive socially."

"A note of caution for parents of only children is to remember that children are children and should not be treated as another adult in the house," says Popilskis. "Impulsivity and immaturity are expected in children as their prefrontal cortex is not developed until adulthood."

Along with letting your kid lose at board games from time to time, "parents of only children should make a cognizant effort to provide their child with opportunities for social interaction, whenever possible," says Zeltser. She recommends giving your solo kid "ample opportunities to learn how to navigate social situations and problem-solve with other children, since children with siblings naturally have more social opportunities than only children."

What's the TL;DR?

No matter what opinions or beliefs those around you may hold, "child outcomes are not based on the number of children in one's family," says Zeltser. "There are many factors, both internal (disposition, temperament, etc.) and external (parenting style, role models, home environment), that contribute to a child's overall well-being." The TL;DR here: However you're doing, you're doing just fine, no matter what your nosy neighbors or pesky relatives have to say.