Only child

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For the English musician, see Only Child (musician).

An only child is a person with no siblings, either biological or adopted.

In a family with multiple offspring, first-borns may be briefly considered only children and have a similar early family environment, but the term only child is generally applied only to those individuals who never have siblings. An only child, however, may have half-siblings or stepsiblings who come along considerably late (after they reach their teens) and still be considered an only child. Children with much older or younger siblings (generally ten or more years) may also have a similar family environment to only children.


Throughout history, only children were relatively uncommon. Over the 20th century in particular, birth rates and average family sizes fell sharply, for a number of reasons including availability of birth control and increased formal employment of women. This reduction in birth rates included a larger proportion of one child families. In recent years, the number of families in North America, Europe, and Japan choosing to have one child has increased considerably since the 1940s, coinciding with achieving equality in the workforce.[1][2] After the Korean War ended in 1953, the South Korean government suggested citizens each have one or two children to boost economic prosperity, which resulted in significantly lowered birth rates and a larger number of only children to the country.[3][4]

Since 1979, the one-child policy in mainland China has restricted most parents to having only one child, although it is subject to local relaxations and individual circumstances.[5][6][7]

Families may have an only child for a variety of reasons, including: personal preference, family planning, financial and emotional or physical health issues, desire to travel, stress in the family, educational advantages, late marriage, stability, focus, time constraints, fears over pregnancy, advanced age, infertility, divorce, and death of a sibling or parent.

Myths and stereotypes[edit]

In Western countries, only children are often the subject of a stereotype that equates them with "spoiled brats". G. Stanley Hall was one of the first commentators to give only children a bad reputation when he referred to their situation as "a disease in itself". Even today, only children are commonly stereotyped as "spoiled, selfish, and bratty".[8] While many only children receive a lot of attention and resources for their development, it is not clear that as a class they are overindulged or differ significantly from children with siblings.[9] Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University and the author of Parenting an Only Child, says that this is a myth. "People articulate that only children are spoiled, they're aggressive, they're bossy, they're lonely, they're maladjusted", she said. "There have been hundreds and hundreds of research studies that show that only children are no different from their peers."[8] Similarly, a popular belief is held that only children have aversive[clarification needed] social skills, and therefore have a harder time making friends. A 2004 study of American middle and high school students found that such beliefs are false.[10][11]

In China, perceived behavioral problems in only children has been called the Little Emperor Syndrome[12] and the lack of siblings has been blamed for a number of social ills such as materialism and crime. However, recent studies do not support these claims, and show no significant differences in personality between only children and children in larger families.[13] The one child policy has also been speculated to be the underlying cause of forced abortions, female infanticide, underreporting[14] of female births, and has been suggested as a possible cause behind China's increasing number of crimes and gender imbalance. Regardless, a 2008 survey given by the Pew Research Center reports that 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy.[15]

The popular media often posit that it is more difficult for only children to cooperate in a conventional family environment, as they have no competitors for the attention of their parents and other relatives. It is suggested that confusion arises about the norms of ages and roles and that a similar effect exists in understanding during relationships with other peers and youth, all throughout life.[16] Furthermore, it is suggested that many feel that their parents place extra pressure and expectations on the only child, and that often, only children are perfectionists.[17] Only children are noted to have a tendency to mature faster.[18]

Scientific research[edit]

A 1987 quantitative review of 141 studies on 16 different personality traits contradicts the opinion, held by theorists including Alfred Adler, that only children feel maladjusted due to pampering.[19] The study found no evidence of any maladjustment in only children. The most important finding was that only children are not very different from children with siblings. The main exception to this was the finding that only children are higher in achievement motivation, largely because their greater share of parental attention translates into increased parental scrutiny: This scrutiny, especially as compounded by only children's access to a greater share of parental resources, exposes them to greater absolute quantities of both reward when they exceed parental expectations and punishment when they fall short.[20] A second analysis revealed that only children, first-borns, and children with only one sibling score higher on tests of verbal ability than later-borns and children with multiple siblings.[21]

The advantage of only children in test scores and achievement motivation may be due to the greater amount of parental attention they receive. According to the Resource Dilution Model, parental resources (e.g. time to read to the child) are important in development. Because these resources are finite, children with many siblings receive fewer resources.[22]

In his book Maybe One, Bill McKibben argues in favor of a one child policy based on this research. He argues that most cultural stereotypes are false, that there are not many differences between only children and other children, and where there are differences, they are favorable to the only child. Aside from scoring significantly better in achievement motivation, only children score significantly better in personal adjustment to new situations. Only children are also more likely to make outside friends, whereas children with siblings tend to be "more parochial and limited in their understanding of a variety of social roles",[23] but it is usually more difficult for them to do so, even in early life.[24][25] Traits such as self-control, interpersonal skills, and emotional control have been observed to vary much more noticeably among only children.[26]

Most research on only children has been quantitative and focused on the behaviour of only-children and on how others, for example teachers, assess that behaviour. Bernice Sorensen, in contrast, used qualitative methods in order to elicit meaning and to discover what only-children themselves understand, feel or sense about their lives that are lived without siblings. Her research showed that during their life span only children often become more aware of their only child status and are very much affected by society's stereotype of the only-child whether or not the stereotype is true or false. She argues in her book, Only Child Experience and Adulthood, that growing up in a predominantly sibling society affects only children and that their lack of sibling relationships can have an important effect on both the way they see themselves and others and how they interact with the world.[27]

The latest research by Cameron et al. (2011) controls for endogeneity associated with being only children. Parents that choose to have only one child could differ systematically in their characteristics from parents who choose to have more than one child. The paper concludes that "those who grew up as only children as a consequence of the (one-child) policy (in China) are found to be less trusting, less trustworthy, less likely to take risks, and less competitive than if they had had siblings. They are also less optimistic, less conscientious, and more prone to neuroticism".[28]

The Big Five[edit]

Many contemporary personality theorists believe that the "big five personality traits" (also known as Five Factor Model) represent a natural taxonomy of human personality variables. Across different languages, the vast majority of adjectives used to describe human personality fit into one of the following five areas, easily remembered by the acronym OCEAN:

  1. Openness,
  2. Conscientiousness,
  3. Extraversion,
  4. Agreeableness, and
  5. Neuroticism.

Factor analyses of personality tests also tend to cluster around these five factors.

In his book Born to Rebel, Frank Sulloway provides evidence that birth order influences the development of Big Five personality traits. Sulloway suggests that firstborns and only children are more conscientious, more socially dominant, less agreeable, and less open to new ideas compared to laterborns.[29] However, his conclusions have been challenged by other researchers,[30] who argue that birth order effects are weak and inconsistent. In one of the largest studies conducted on the effect of birth order on the Big Five, data from a national sample of 9,664 subjects found no association between birth order and scores on the NEO PI-R personality test.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Purpose of Only Child". Retrieved December 25, 2010.
  2. ^ "The Onlies". New York Magazine. May 21, 2005. Retrieved February 9, 2010.
  3. ^ "Korean Women Say Birth Control is ‘Men’s Responsibility’". September 27, 2008. Retrieved December 25, 2010.
  4. ^ "Illegal abortion, South Korea's open secret". Reuters. January 27, 2009. Retrieved December 25, 2010.
  5. ^ Rocha da Silva, Pascal (2006). "La politique de l'enfant unique en République populaire de Chine" ("The politics of one child in the People's Republic of China"). Université de Genève (University of Geneva). p. 22-8. (French)
  6. ^ "Marriage of the Only Child: Joys and Worries". July 4, 2003. Retrieved January 15, 2011.
  7. ^ "China's One-Child Policy". Time. July 27, 2009. Retrieved January 15, 2011.
  8. ^ a b The Only Child Myth, By Juju Chang and Sara Holmberg, ABC News, Retrieved on August 25th, 2008.
  9. ^ "The Only Child: Debunking the Myths". Time. July 8, 2010. Retrieved July 9, 2010.
  10. ^; "Only Children Turn Out Just Fine", August 19, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2010.
  11. ^ "ONLY CHILD SYNDROME A MYTH". DiscoveryNews. August 16, 2010. Retrieved December 25, 2010.
  12. ^ "The Rise Of The Only Child". Newsweek. April 23, 2001. Retrieved December 25, 2010.
  13. ^ Wan, et al. "Comparison of personality traits of only and sibling school children in Beijing." Journal of Genetic Psychology 155.4: 377(12).
  14. ^ For studies that reported underreporting or delayed reporting of female births, see the following:
    • M. G. Merli and A. E. Raftery. 1990. "Are births under-reported in rural China? Manipulation of statistical records in response to China's population policies", Demography 37 (February): 109-126
    • Johansson, Sten; Nygren, Olga (1991). "The missing girls of China: a new demographic account". Population and Development Review (Population Council) 17 (1): 35–51. doi:10.2307/1972351. JSTOR 1972351. 
    • Merli, M. Giovanna; Raftery, Adrian E. (2000). "Are births underreported in rural China?". Demography 37 (1): 109 126. doi:10.2307/2648100. PMID 10748993. 
  15. ^ "The Chinese Celebrate Their Roaring Economy, As They Struggle With Its Costs". 2008-07-22. Retrieved 2009-07-31. 
  16. ^ "10 Tips for Parenting Only Children". Parents. October 2008. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
  17. ^ "Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence". Psychology Today. July 19, 2009. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
  18. ^ "Raising an Only Child". Parents.
  19. ^ Adler, A. (1964). Problems of neurosis. New York: Harper and Row.
  20. ^ Polit, D. F. & Falbo, T. (1987), "Only children and personality development: A quantitative review", Journal of Marriage and the Family 49: 309–325, doi:10.2307/352302 .
  21. ^ Polit, D. F. & Falbo, T. (1988), "The intellectual achievement of only children", Journal of Biosocial Science 20: 275–285, doi:10.1017/S0021932000006611, PMID 3063715 .
  22. ^ Downey, D. B. (2001), "Number of siblings and intellectual development: The resource dilution explanation", American Psychologist 56: 497–504, doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.6-7.497 .
  23. ^ McKibben, B. (1998), Maybe one: A personal and environmental argument for single-child families, New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 37, ISBN 0-684-85281-0 .
  24. ^ "So is an only child really happier?". Mirror. November 30, 2010. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  25. ^ "An only child 'is NOT a more lonely teenager', scientists claim". Daily Mail. August 16, 2010. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  26. ^ "ONLY CHILD SYNDROME A MYTH". DiscoveryNews. August 16, 2010. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  27. ^ Sorensen, B. (2008), Only Child Experience and Adulthood, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 164–195, ISBN 0-230-52101-0 .
  28. ^ Cameron, Lisa; Erkal, N.; Gangadharan, L. & Meng, Xin (2011), Little Emperors—Behavioral Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy (University of Melbourne) .
  29. ^ Sulloway, F. J. (1996), Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics and creative lives, New York: Pantheon Books, ISBN 0-679-44232-4 .
  30. ^ Harris, J. R. (2006), No two alike: Human nature and human individuality, New York: WW Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-05948-0 .
  31. ^ Jefferson, T.; Herbst, J. H. & McCrae, R. R. (1998), "Associations between birth order and personality traits: Evidence from self-reports and observer ratings", Journal of Research in Personality 32 (4): 498–509, doi:10.1006/jrpe.1998.2233 .