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An only child is a child with no siblings, either biological or adopted. Although first-born children may be temporarily considered only children, and have a similar early family environment, the term only child is generally applied only to those individuals who never have siblings. An "only child", however may have half-siblings or step-siblings who come along considerably late (after they reach their teens) and still be considered an "only child". Children with much older siblings (generally ten or more years) may also have a similar family environment to only children.

Families may have an only child for a variety of reasons, including: family planning, financial and emotional or physical health issues, stress in the family, time constraints, fears over pregnancy, advanced age, infertility, personal preferences, divorce, and death of a sibling or parent. Under the One-child policy in Mainland China, subject to local relaxations and individual circumstances, urban parents are generally prohibited by law to have more than one child.

Only children are often subject to a stereotype that equates them with spoiled brats in Western countries. In China, the phenomenon of Little Emperor Syndrome has been observed.

In recent years, the number of families in the United States choosing to have one child has increased by more than 30%. New York City is famous for residents with increasingly popular single-child families. This can be attributed mainly to socioeconomic, educational, career, and financial factors. A similar trend is also prevalent in Europe, where only children are widespread and common.[1]



G. Stanley Hall was one of the first experts 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."[2] 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. The reality, according to Newman, is that "there have been hundreds and hundreds of research studies that show that only children are no different from their peers."[2]

Scientific research

A 1987 quantitative review of 141 studies on 16 different personality traits contradicted Adler's theory by finding 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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."[6]

The Big Five

Contemporary personality theorists generally agree 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: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and 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.[7] However, his conclusions have been challenged by other researchers,[8] 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.[9]

See also


  1. ^ "The Onlies". New York Magazine. May 21, 2005. Retrieved February 9, 2010.
  2. ^ a b The Only Child Myth, By Juju Chang and Sara Holmberg, ABC News, Retrieved on August 25th, 2008.
  3. ^ Polit, D. F. & Falbo, T. (1987) Only children and personality development: A quantitative review. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 49, 309-325.
  4. ^ Polit, D. F. & Falbo, T. (1988). The intellectual achievement of only children. Journal of Biosocial Science, 20, 275-285.
  5. ^ Downey, D.B. (2001). Number of siblings and intellectual development: The resource dilution explanation. American Psychologist, 56, 497-504.
  6. ^ McKibben, B. (1998) Maybe one: A personal and environmental argument for single-child families. Simon &Schuster, pg 37.
  7. ^ Sulloway, F.J. (1996). Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics and creative lives. New York: Pantheon Books.
  8. ^ Harris, J. R. (2006). No two alike: Human nature and human individuality. WW Norton & Company.
  9. ^ 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, 498-509.

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