Where The ‘Only Child’ Myth Came From (And Why It’s Not True)

Family playing ball
“If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” —Carl Jung, “The Integration of the Personality”

In A Nutshell

Only children are spoiled, socially awkward, and rely on imaginary friends to keep themselves company. They’re damaged, and a single child is pretty much guaranteed to be maladjusted somehow. The myth dates back to the turn of the century and the work of G. Stanley Hall, a child psychologist who was overseeing a study done on several hundred children from all walks of life. He wrote that the condition of being an only child is nothing short of a disease, and the stigma stuck—until recently. Current studies show that only children are no more maladjusted than anyone else, but decades of stigma is a lot to overcome.

The Whole Bushel

Being—or having—an only child still has something of a stigma attached to it. The only children are the ones that grow up spoiled beyond belief, getting everything they want from parents who can lavish all their attention on one person and cater to their every need, no matter how particular they are. They’re the kids that don’t play well with others, that don’t have to share, and are probably socially maladjusted because they haven’t had anyone their own age to properly learn to interact with.

Only children are self-centered and self-serving, socially deprived, emotionally stunted, and more. The list of reasons to hate the only child goes on and on. So how did it get so ingrained in the world’s consciousness?

At the turn of the 20th century, a man named Granville Stanley Hall was a widely accepted expert in child growth, development, and psychology. Hall, who had been born to an old Massachusetts Puritan family in 1846, would graduate from college with honors as a poet before spending several years in German seminary schools. A professor of language and philosophy first, he later turned to experimental psychology.

In the last years of the 19th century, researchers at Clark University undertook a massive project. They surveyed teachers from around the country, asking for stories about abnormal children that stood out from their peers. Ultimately, they got 1,045 case studies of children who were deemed out of the ordinary for a variety of reasons. Case studies were extremely callous at the time, with one poor girl’s case file reading, “F. 9 yrs. old. Ugliest person ever seen. Looks like a monkey.”

Others were singled out for strange fears, the presence of birthmarks, unusually cruel or outgoing dispositions, or a tendency to be the class clown. The researchers decided to do a follow-up study with a few hundred of the children, and they took a closer look at these. Many came from New Jersey, and notes were made on everything from their health to their social skills.

Hall oversaw the study, and drew his conclusions from these few hundred children. He wrote that children that came from large families were less troublesome than those that came from families of only one or two kids, and that, similar to other animals, it was the natural way of things to have a whole flock of children. They were more advanced, healthier, and better adjusted when they grew up in a group.

When it came to only children, he had far less favorable things to say, even stating that the condition of being an only child was like having “a disease in itself.”

The sentiment was repeated over and over again, with psychology texts, child psychology guides, and magazine articles declaring that being an only child was just not healthy. In 1928, one man, Norman Fenton, published his findings to the contrary, but he went largely unnoticed. The damage to the reputation of the world’s only children had been done. Not only were they damaged, they were downright diseased.

Today, scientific research is starting to chip away at the bad reputation that only children have. Work like that being done by Dr. Toni Falbo of the population Research Center at the University of Texas is showing that being an only child isn’t as bad as we’ve long thought. Only children usually turn out to be similar to their sibling-enhanced peers. If anything, they also tend to show slightly better achievement levels when it comes to verbal skills, perhaps a benefit of interacting more with adults than other children at a young age. While only children often end up being forced to bear the burden of being the decision-maker when it comes to aging parents, they’re also likely to do better in school and end up with a better education, a side effect of being the only child that parents need to send to college or tutor at home.

Show Me The Proof

Biographical Memoir of Granville Stanley Hall, by Edward L. Thorndike
The University of Texas at Austin: Your One and Only
NY Times: What Only-Child Syndrome?
Medical Daily: Brothers And Sisters And Nobody: The Science Behind Their Personality And Health