It's All Relative: One And Only

 by Stephanie Berger
 published on Thursday, April 13, 2006


"The only child has difficulties with every independent activity and, sooner or later, they become useless in life."

Psychologist Alfred Adler, who died in 1937, made this allegation. Adler was one of the first psychologists to acknowledge that birth order might affect siblings' personalities, helping create the stereotypes that we often buy into today.

Child psychologists and therapists may have relaxed these stereotypes over the years, but general theories remain the same. It's commonly believed that in a family with multiple children, the oldest child tends to be a leader, and the youngest child may strive for attention and accomplishments in order to compete with his or her older brothers and sisters.

But only children get the short end of the stick. Adler said children without siblings were dependent and self-centered. I've often heard people confirm this description, even saying that they can tell that so-and-so is an only child because she's unable to cooperate with others.

As you're probably guessing by this point, I have no siblings. Not a protective older brother or bratty little sister to speak of -- no shared bedrooms, waiting in line for the bathroom or getting tattled on to teach me the important life lessons that Adler and others seem to think are necessary for success.

Yet for some reason, I've turned out OK. I'm not attached at the hip to my parents, I'm as independent as the average college student and I'm definitely not becoming "useless in life" -- at least, not yet.

So why does everyone have to pick on the only child? Why is there some sort of stigma against parents who choose to have a brood of one?

It turns out that those of you with siblings might just be taking your jealousy out those of us who got the 2-1, parent-to-child ratio.

Toni Fablo, a professor of educational psychology and a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, spent more than 30 years studying the relationship of only children to their families. As an only child herself and the mother of an only child, she aimed to either confirm or debunk the myths surrounding birth order. What Fablo found might surprise you.

Apparently, being an only child doesn't disadvantage people -- quite to the contrary, it might even provide a competitive edge.

By analyzing more than 100 studies regarding only children, Fablo came to the conclusion that they aren't much different than their peers.

While only kids have the same levels of self-esteem, emotional stability and social skills as other children, they may be slightly more successful in the long run -- possibly the product of having parents who can focus more on their needs and have more financial resources to devote to them.

But that still means that only children are selfish, right?

Not necessarily. Think of it this way -- an only child who grows up in a middle class family might get less attention than a child who grows up with several siblings in a wealthy, upper class family that can afford to have a parent stay at home. Those rich kids might end up more successful and confident because their parents could always afford the best for them.

We all know that stereotyping is not OK when it comes to race and sex, so to continue to believe that people are going to fit certain roles based on how many rugrats their parents raised is ridiculous.

As an only child, people continue to tell me I am spoiled and that my parents have given me everything I ever wanted - and I resent that. It's not fair to punish me for the decisions my parents made to have only one child and to raise her a certain way.

I am fortunate enough to have parents who gave me -- and continue to give me -- a lot of support, both emotionally and financially. But everything I ever wanted? Please. What about that pony I asked for in the fifth grade?

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