The latest research on only child syndrome. Is it real?Lynn Harris
When I was maybe five, my parents told me I was going to be a big sister. Shortly thereafter, they said sorry, false alarm. I cried because it upset me to see my mom crying, not because I was all that sad. A sibling? Uh-uh. Sharing the spotlight, toys – anything, really- sorry, that’s not in my contract. Because being an only was excellent. Yes, being an only child was all I knew, but still. I’d observed my friend Kara always having to “give Danny a turn.” I’d witnessed the masking-tape-down-the-middle-of-the-bedroom incident with Laurel and her big sister. There was the time Tamar and I arrived at her elaborate playhouse only to find it taken over (“nO gIrLs!!!!”) by her brother Ben and his Visigoth pals.
Then again, while it was awesome to torment Rachel’s little sister Melanie by attaching a pencil to a Lazy Susan and forcing her to eat a sandwich of whatever it pointed to when spun (relish, Marshmallow Fluff, Fancy Feast), I was also happy to come home from play dates alone -to a leaning tower of library books, to a game of Pick Up Sticks with my also-only dad, to my Raggedy Ann-themed spot at the center of the universe.
There were lonely days, sure. (Doctor, was it significant that my most vivid daydreams were about the kids from Zoom coming over to play?) But socially, overall, I did fine. I had plenty of non-imaginary friends. I was even popular-ish, for a dork. Considering the enduring images of onlies in research – socially awkward! Indoorsy! – and pop culture – The Bad Seed! Manny! – was I an oddball for not being much of an oddball?
Maybe not, according to new data. An analysis of 13,500 responses from kids in grades 7-12 who were asked to select five friends from among their schoolmates revealed that “Only Child Syndrome” doesn’t really exist; in the study, only children were just as likely to be “friended” by their classmates as those who grew up with siblings. These results offer a counterpoint to a growing fear that sibling-less-ness hurts kids’ social skills, said Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University’s Marion campus. Her conclusion: “I don’t think anyone has to be concerned that if you don’t have siblings, you won’t learn the social skills you need to get along with other students in high school.”
This reassurance comes at a time when more and more families are sticking with just one. “Since the early ’60s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number, to about 1 in 5 – and that’s from before the markets crashed,” as Lauren Sandler recently noted in Time.“Birth control has quickly become one of the recession’s few growth industries.” But to the degree that sticking with one is a choice, it is – for some – one that’s still fraught. More than one of my friends has anxiously asked me to confirm that being an only didn’t suck, that I feel I turned out okay. It didn’t. I did.
So how to explain some of the other research one might turn up in a fretful late-night Google bender? Like the 2004 report by the co-author of the very study above, in which teachers rated only children as having poorer social skills – less self-control and interpersonal finesse, more behavioral problems – than their peers with sibs? The answer (borne out in corollary research): practice, practice, practice.
“‘It looks like the original deficit that we saw in kindergarten doesn’t bear out for very long and is overcome probably through greater peer interaction,” sociologist Douglas Downey told Scientific American.
There’s also this: your siblings might help you learn to socialize, sure. But what if your siblings are jerks? I’m not just talking about my husband, who, when his parents popped out to the store, grasped his little sister’s shoulders and said, “They’re never coming back.” Research also suggests that intra-sibling violence is a precursor to dating violence.
In no way am I criticizing non-onlies and the people who love them (each of my kids has a sibling!), I’m not claiming that only = better across the board. I’m just saying the onlies are all right. I can safely say, based on my 41-year longitudinal study of one subject, we do okay. We are actually pretty good at sharing, given that we never had to defend our stuff from anyone. (This is me to a fault. If you have anything I lent you, ever, can you please return it?) We are not necessarily awkward; in fact, we’re really good at talking to grownups, including but not limited to lying about where we are going in order to squirm free from our parents’ sometimes iron-fisted overprotection. (True, I may have felt more urgency than my siblinged peers in terms of finding a life partner: I got anxious not only when my friends got married, but when their parents started to die. What, I wondered, if I have to make big life decisions- if not death ones- by myself? When, God forbid, one parent is grieving for him or herself, whose job will it be to support me? But you know, people forge all sorts of family and “family” bonds. I came to trust that there’d be someone.)
Now – yes – I look at my going-on-four daughter, Bess, who is teaching her little brother all sorts of social skills, such as grabbing or collapsing to the floor in a sodden heap to communicate your needs. I love learning from them, sort of, how it feels to have a sibling. I love seeing their attachment grow. But Bess doesn’t remember what it was like to be at the center of her own Ikea-themed universe. And a teeny, tiny part of me wishes she did.