Only Child Syndrome: Truth or Myth?


Q: We have a 5-year-old daughter and have discussed having another child. However, over the past year we've realized that we are very content with just our daughter and are seriously thinking we are done. But we are hearing comments from several family members about the "only-child syndrome"... meaning that they usually grow up lonely and spoiled. Is that really an issue?

A: Your family members are probably mentioning these things to you because they have heard common myths about raising an only child. Toni Falbo, Ph. D., a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, began doing research and investigating only-child experiences in the 1970s. An only child herself and also the mother of one, Falbo is considered to be a lead researcher in this field. Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren't measurably different from other kids – except that they, along with firstborns and people having only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement. No one, Falbo says, has published research that can demonstrate any truth behind the stereotype of the only child as lonely, selfish and maladjusted. Falbo also says that only children tend to do better in school and pursue more advanced levels of education than other kids, simply because their parents have significantly higher expectations of academic achievement and attainment when they have just one child (Time Magazine, 2010).

The legitimizing of the image of the "lonely only" was the work of one man, Granville Stanley Hall, who established one of the first American psychology research labs and was a leader in the child-study movement more than 100 years ago. He even stated, "Being an only child is a disease itself." Only children have been labeled and perceived as spoiled, selfish and bratty. However, since the 1970s, that stereotype has been debunked, and the research consistently shows that "while only children received unlimited time for development and resources, there's no confirmation they are overindulged or differ considerably from children with siblings" ("Parenting an Only Child," Susan Newman, Ph.D., Rutgers University).

Common suggestions for raising an only child include:
Teach your child good social skills.
Teach them to share, be considerate of others and compromise.   Only children tend to be perfectionists and high achievers, so help them set realistic expectations.   Because they are with adults so much of the time, only children often mature faster.
Keep in mind what is age-appropriate behavior.
Encourage independence, stick to boundaries, and maintain chore and household expectations.
Set spending rules and don't overindulge your child. Delaying gratification can provide long-term benefits as your child develops and learns about setting goals and working hard to accomplish them.
Don't feel like you are your child's personal entertainer and that your job is to always make him or her happy. Your job as a parent is to teach your child skills to help her grow into a confident, independent and well-adjusted young person.

In general, children need unconditional love, food, warmth, attention and – yes, plenty of socialization. In today's society, if you have an only child, there are many opportunities for interacting with other children. Most children have access to play groups, preschool and play dates several years before they even reach school age. So, stay on track and try not to let the opinions of others bother you. Your only child should not only be just fine – but will most likely thrive.

Sherri Wall McMillen works for Moses Cone Health Center. Please submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" by e-mailing



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