Is only-child syndrome a thing, or is your one-child policy good for your little one?


All we want to do as parents is to see our children healthy and happy every day.
All we want to do as parents is to see our children healthy and happy every day.

In 1896, the American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall famously said: "Being an only child is a disease in itself."

Fair enough, he lived in a time where the average family size had gone down from seven children in a family on average in 1800, to 3.5 in 1900 – a massive shift in just 100 years.

To him, the idea of only one child in a family was an anathema. But he had no idea how much worse it was about the get, did he?

Estimates from the CIA World Factbook in 2016 are that the average American woman has 1.87 children.

There's no doubt, as soon as women can control their reproduction, fertility rates in developed countries just keep declining. But let's examine those 1.87 children-per-woman figure more closely.

It suggests that many women choose not to have children at all and that a family size of between one and two children per family is 'the norm'.

Although, increasingly, the whole notion of a "norm" is falling away as human beings continue to choose how to constitute their private lives (as long as they are lucky enough to live in societies where that choice is possible).

Why are women having fewer children?

The "good news" reason is that, even 100 years ago, between six and nine of every 1 000 women died in childbirth, and one out of every five children died before their 5th birthday.

People consciously tried to have as many children as possible to safeguard against the expected losses.

As childbirth became safer and women began to be able to control their reproductive cycles and space their children, and as child mortality decreased, family sizes decreased too.

One or two highly prized children, who received all the parental resources, began to replace a brood. Further, fewer of us than ever before are in heterosexual marriage relationships when we start having children.

Blended families, single parenting or shared parenting (between parents who don’t live together) is vastly more common in South Africa than Mom, Dad, John and Sue living together under one roof. 

Remaining childless is also slowly being robbed of its stigma.

On top of that, we have access to legal abortions and contraceptives to help us limit our procreation, and fertility interventions to help women achieve pregnancy and childbirth later in life – and without necessarily having access to a male partner.

This raises the question of how many so-called "singletons" really are only children?

Given that we live in a world filled with cousins-as-siblings, gated community living, cohabiting, being raised by Gogo, blended families, step- and half-siblings, we may need to divorce ourselves from this Western family construct entirely.

The 'bad news' reason?

In 2017, middle class millennial parents don’t enter into parenting with nearly as much financial security as in generations past.

Owning a house is increasingly out of reach. Job security is a thing of the past, and we can’t expect free education or healthcare for our children either.

The country is in recession, our economy is junk-status rated.

Many people make a difficult decision to stick to one child when they could have happily filled their home with five. Parents of only one child have all the joy of parenting at one half, or one third, or less, of the price.

One has to wonder whether Dr Hall, had he lived in 2017, would have been similarly pessimistic about a singleton child’s future.

The devil's in the research

Probably the single academic to do more than anyone else to restore the reputation of only children is Toni Falbo, (herself an only child).

Who for 30 years has been analysing psychological studies of single children (in the end, covering 100 000 subjects) and who has found the personalities of single children were indistinguishable from their peers with brothers and sisters.

She also found no difference between them and children with siblings, measured by adjustment, character, or sociability.

Single children, firstborns and people with one sibling did score higher in intelligence and achievement, and single children do score higher in self-esteem and achievement.

The reason for that is pretty self-explanatory:

The fewer children in a family, the larger the slice of the resource pie each gets. But fear not, if you have a large family – the single child was only more intelligent by one extra IQ point.

But did Falbo find single children to be lonely, selfish and maladjusted? No.

Yet, even in 2017, prophets of doom make exactly those predictions for only children: they are shy, too quiet, precocious, over-indulged. They are selfish, lonely, and socially maladjusted.

Stereotypes can harm

Sigmund Freud (probably the world’s most famous psychologist) and Alfred Adler argued passionately in the 1920s about birth order, trying to assign characteristics to them.

They argued in a time before psychology was attempting to subject itself to the same rigorous demands as the rest of scientific learning.

Freud, the eldest child, disagreed deeply with Adler (a middle child) who said middle children were more well-adjusted than the eldest children, who struggled for success and superiority.

Today, we would come to the inevitable conclusion that Freud and Adler could not be making unbiased statements, given their feelings about their birth orders.

Stereotypes are tempting, but scientifically weak arguments, which remain unprovable and subjective.

Stereotypes are self-fulfilling:

A singleton child who is having a particularly good time at a birthday party may be called "precocious", a last-born of three who is having a similarly riotous time may be called "sociable" instead.

Stereotypes, like clichés, contain a grain of truth – but no more, and they’re certainly not immutable. Self-fulfilling prophecies suggest that children will respond to parental expectations of them.

If a parent expects their only child to be self-centred and disruptive, they may be; if they expect them to be introverted, the child may well respond like that, because that is the role in the family he or she was given, not the one they created.

So what’s good about being an only?

Sibling traits can be framed in the language of economics:

Access to and competition for resources inform behaviours in a family.

Siblings compete for parental resources (time, affection, food) by developing separate roles or niches (areas of speciality) as strategies to increase the attention they receive.

There is no need for a singleton to compete. They get ALL the resources.

On the other hand, they may also be weighed under by ALL the parental expectations, dreams and projections. But in the plethora of factors that contribute to the shaping of a person, their sibling status is only one.

The number of factors that contribute to shaping a child’s personality is uncountable whether from nature (genetic, inborn) or nurture (the experiences and people in a person’s life).

Nobody can claim that their stubbornness, or flexibility, or adaptiveness, or lack of social skill, is due to birth order and family size alone.

So have as many children as you want.

But rest assured, your little 'only' is just fine.

How to help your only, if she’s lonely

An only child is often in the company of grown-ups. Possibly, an only child’s opportunities for seeing other children come in the form of the "little emperor"being carted off to child-centred, structured and focused activities for her benefit (not yours).

The danger is that she thinks her needs are more important than yours.

She could also be missing out on the rough-and-tumble of playing freely in a pack of children – and picking up a few social skills in the process.

Amelia, a single mother of one, reserves Friday nights for "date night"... with a difference.

Once a week, she and several single-parent friends meet in informal "support groups", where they make dinner and have wine, and the children free-range around them.

Such a system can be a lifesaver for adult-starved single parents and child-starved single kids.

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