Is there only child syndrome? That’s what experts say

Is there only child syndrome? That's what experts say

© istock / Mladen Zivkovic
Only children are better than their reputation

A child usually doesn’t stay alone for long. Only around a quarter of underage children grow up without siblings. There are many good reasons for this. One reason could be that only children are spoiled, selfish and lonely and that the parents prefer to remedy the situation. But is that really true? Experts surprise us with this answer.

Children without siblings have a bad reputation

Anyone who grew up as an only child has to struggle with a bad reputation. This is not necessarily justified, but the myth persists. There are only two views on the subject, because if you grew up with siblings, you can hardly imagine that you were alone. If you were alone, you are an expert yourself, but you don’t know how it was with others. Is there only child syndrome and what does that mean exactly? We pass the question on to researchers and psychologists who have dealt intensively with the joy and suffering of the sibling child.

Where does the theory of the only child syndrome come from?

The dark theory of the selfish, spoiled only child has existed since the end of the 19th century. The child psychologists Granville Stanley Hall († 1924) and Eugene William Bohannon († 1955) designed a questionnaire at the time to examine children with different characteristics. Both men concluded from the results, which were published in 1896 under the name “A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children”, that children without siblings were negatively affected. Bohannon described the mood of only children in 196 out of 200 cases as “overly spoiled”. His colleague found even clearer words.

Character traits in only child syndrome

Hall called only children spoiled, selfish, inappropriate, imperious, anti-social and lonely. They are used to getting what they want. Undivided attention on top. So you can only grow into a selfish person. Without exchange with siblings, loneliness threatens. In adulthood, this is reflected in incapacity to criticize and a lack of social skills.

Even if recent studies and research agree with Hall and Bohannon to a certain point, the questionnaires and conclusions from that time have proven to be unscientific and flawed. The sibling tyrant was exposed more of a myth.

What does research know today about only child syndrome?

Nevertheless, the negatively documented typing somehow stays in the mind. Recent research has long shown that as an only child one does not automatically differ from peers with siblings. The lack of a sister or brother does not condemn you to become selfish or anti-social. But what is the status then?

Looking at the research on only children of the past 100 years, the results are mixed. The relationship with the parents is more important than the number of siblings and of course there are pampered egoists with and without siblings.

Expert Toni Falbo, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and an only child, opposes the idea that you absolutely need siblings to grow up to be a decent person. She has researched on the topic of only children over the past 40 years and wrote a paper in 1986 in which she viewed and summarized more than 100 studies on only children, their performance, character, intelligence, adaptability, sociability and their parent-child relationship. Her conclusion: The characteristics of single and sibling children do not differ. Only the relationship with the parents seems to be a special one; it was narrower in the examined only children.

Do “spoiled only children” even have advantages over children with siblings?

So far, the question has always been in the direction of whether single children are harmed. Today one wonders whether children might even benefit from being single. Does “being alone with parents” inventive?

Since one-child policy has determined family structure in China for over 30 years, a study of the brains and personality of only children by researchers led by psychologist Jiang Qiu from Southwest University in Chongqing showed that they are more inventive in lateral thinking . The necessity of dealing with oneself is assumed as the reason.

However, there were also indications that only children are a little less willing to come to terms with others.

In studies on the subject of intelligence in sibling success, only children outdo siblings who were born after the first child, but rank behind child no. 1. This phenomenon is described as a tutor effect. Firstborns only get full attention from the parents, later act as role models for the younger ones, which obviously makes them extremely smart.

The only child syndrome is refuted and only children are not cut off from the social environment. Parents and the social environment prepare their training and play area, which can be just as colorful as with siblings.


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