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Does Being an Only Child Actually Mess You Up?

I asked a pair of experts if people with no siblings were really more confident, selfish, and self-absorbed.
Photo by Flickr user Michael Bentley

You've probably heard a version of what's sometimes called "Only Child Syndrome": Supposedly, people without siblings get so much attention from their parents when they're kids that they turn into obnoxious, entitled adults. According to this well-worn stereotype, Angelica, the spoiled, sibling-less three-year-old from Rugrats grew up to be some kind of attention-seeking megalomaniac, like former chairman of the Federal Reserve—and only child—Alan Greenspan.


Another version of this theory comes from China, where, if you were born during the "one-child policy," you're ostensibly part of a generation of self-centered only children called " Little Emperors."

On one hand, reducing people's entire psychological profile to one factor like that seems reductive. Still, something as seemingly insignificant as the number of words you hear before you're three years old can have a scientifically documented effect on what kind of person you grow up to be—surely being an only child does something to you, right?

To separate fact from fiction, we found some experts on what happens to children without siblings. Dr. Toni Falbo of the University of Texas is one the world's leading researchers on only-child-itis. Dr. Carl Pickhardt is a therapist who spent years in the trenches with families, including ones with only children, and then wrote a couple books about what he learned.

VICE: Let's start at the source: Are parents of only children somehow different?
Carl Pickhardt: This only child is the first and last child that these parents are going to have, and it's the only chance at parenting they get, so they really want to do it well and right. This is a family where they're making a really hard effort to do their best by their child, who conversely—because of the attachment of the parents—really wants to do well by the parents, and do right by them, so it's not, generally speaking, a laid-back family situation.


Toni Falbo: In a lot of one-child families, the parents aren't really interested in the kid and they might have had the kid just because it was maybe sort of an accident. Or in some cultures you have to have a kid, that's how you know that you're really married. So they send the kid off to boarding school or, you know, they're not really invested in the kid at all. Those kids suffer from other issues, potentially, but that's not real common in the United States.

Are the inattentive parents of only children different from other inattentive parents?
Falbo: There's only so much one can attend to at one time. So some kids probably do get away with a whole bunch of stuff because the parents just don't know about it.

But only children do usually get a larger share of the parents' attention than they would otherwise, right?
Pickhardt: The only child gets all the social, emotional, and material parenting—and focus—that the parents have to give. What that means is that they don't have to share that with anybody on the one hand, but they also have to absorb everything that the parents have to give.

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And your research has shown that that's actually good in measurable ways, right? They have higher self-esteem?
Falbo: Not to say they have very high self-esteem, but, on average they score a little higher in a statistically significant way, but that might be one point out of 20; so it's not a huge difference. It's enough to be statistically significant. And, of course there's going to be a lot of variety: There are going to be some people with low self-esteem and some people who have very high self-esteem. So we're just looking at the average score across a group of people.


But does that mean they're full of themselves?
Pickhardt: They tend to be very often self-confident because they peer with adults. What happens is they tend to be comfortable dealing with adult authorities, and speaking up to adult authorities, because to some degree they put themselves on the same standing with adult authorities.

How do we know they're comfortable around adults?
Falbo: There's some strong anecdotal information about this. Teachers who have only children in their classrooms say that the only children really feel very comfortable interacting with the teacher. Whereas if you come from a larger family or you're a later-born, you may not have to spend so much time focusing on what the teacher says.

Since they talk to adults, do only children learn curse words sooner?
Falbo: I don't know [laughs]. I haven't done that research study. You ought to put that out there as a question and see what people think on the web. Report to me with your findings!

This all sounds great, but is there a downside?
Pickhardt: The downside of that is that they can be pretty hard on themselves— because when they say to themselves, I am in this family. I can have an equal say to my parents, and equal standing, what they sometimes do is they apply equal standards and say, I should be able to do as well as my parents, and they get exaggerated standards of performance. So they push themselves pretty hard. If you have an only child, generally speaking, you don't have to do much pushing, because they're over-pushing themselves.


How can that hurt them?
Pickhardt: They can be pretty critical when they don't do as well as they like. They're pretty strongly self-directed. They're usually self-willed because they're used to looking out for their own self-interests. Very often they can be quite possessive in terms of possessions, and privacy, and time to themselves. They're pretty sure of the values that they hold, and they can sense that they know very often what is right. Often in adult relationships, they're not very comfortable in conflict, because they just haven't had much experience with it.

People say they're materialistic because their parents can buy them more stuff. Is there anything to that?
Pickhardt: Very valued possessions can become particularly important, because sometimes they have an attachment to things. They haven't got siblings to attach to, so things become more important then they otherwise might.

Falbo: I can see that this might be an issue for some people like in a psychotherapy session. But it wouldn't be necessarily characteristic of all folks who have no siblings. You know, some people have no siblings, but since they pretty much always had what they wanted—or what their parents thought they needed—they don't really have to feel threatened that someone is going to take it away. So they may be more relaxed about possessions.

What about the stereotype that they always want their way?
Pickhardt: Put these kids in groups in school, and very often what you find is that the leader of the group is the only child. The reason for that is that the kid does not want to be bound—doesn't want their performance determined by what other people do. They'd rather try to govern the group so they can gain a level of performance that works for them.


But again, according to your research they're measurably better a school than kids with siblings, right?
Falbo: The achievement difference becomes more obvious as they get older. I think that's probably because, if you only have one kid then you can pay to send them to college, pay to get them into a master's program, and so on. Whereas if you have six or seven kids, you just don't have that much money, so it just leads to them not getting as much education. It doesn't necessarily mean that they get no education; they just don't get as high of a level on average.

Does that show up when they move on to careers?
Pickhardt: Issues of sharing, issues of cooperation, issues of compromise, issues of making concessions, may be, at least until I get used to it, may be a little harder for me to make [if I'm an only child]. I'm used to calling my own shots and I'm used to controlling my own performance and when I have to change, when my performance depends on my teamwork with other people, then I have to start developing a set of skills I may not have developed before, but I can develop.

But they're at an advantage, right? Since statistically they do better in school?
Falbo: Once you start being successful then that tends to get you into the higher achievement groups, just because you're more cooperative and attentive and follow instructions and do that sort of thing.

Has anyone studied their ability to make friends?
Pickhardt: They tend not to be social butterflies. They don't hang around very often just with large groups of other kids. What they're interested in is a few select, very close, good friends. And part of that is wanting to have the quality of intimacy the they had with their parents. But they're also trying to create something kind of like sibling attachment with their friends so they can have that kind of closeness.


Do the numbers back up this idea that they're not out searching for friends, but they do have them?
Falbo: In the 50s, they had theorists who had "needs" for everything: They had "need for achievement," "need for hostility," and then "need for affiliation," which means feeling like you've got to get out there and talk to people. Their "need for affiliation" [score] was a little bit lower but they would report not being lonely.

Did that survey ask the only children how many friends they had?
Falbo: Only children came up with numbers that were comparable to what other people had. So it appears that only children don't feel the need to be with people that much, and they don't feel lonely when they are on their own.

Do they have a tougher time getting into romantic relationships?
Pickhardt: They do what any child does: They have to take how they were formatively influenced, and they have to see how that formative influence fits in with the demands of a relationship, and usually what happens is that the person in some ways finds out, "Well this may have worked when I was coming up, but it doesn't seem to work very well now," and they make changes, and they learn how to conduct themselves differently.

But my question is, are they bad at dating? After all, there are so many articles about dating an only child versus dating someone with siblings.
Falbo: Sometimes people use being an only child as an excuse, so if they're really nervous about something or maybe they're called out about bad behavior, they say, "Oh well I'm an only child. What can you expect?" So I think it just becomes a way of them explaining themselves so they can get away with it. You know, "I'm just defective permanently, blah blah blah."

And when someone does bust out that excuse as an adult, what then?
Falbo: I've met a lot of people who have been in marriages where they had a husband who said, "Oh well I can't do that. I'm an only child." I say, "Well, don't let them get away with that anymore! Just say no. You're not a child anymore. You don't even live with your parents anymore, so forget about it."

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