Myths of only children debunked as study reveals no reliable scientific evidence that being an only child affects ‘personality, behaviour, or well-being’

Only children have a reputation they don't deserve

Only child running while holding hands of a parent on each side
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Researchers looking into 'only child syndrome', have set about debunking myths about stereotypical traits of only children. The results are very interesting, especially as the prevalence of parents having one child is on the rise.

For those thinking about having a second baby, there's a lot to consider - whether childcare costs will be affordable with two, the age gap you're hoping for, and if you actually want to have another child. Some might find their early dreams of having a big family thwarted for a number of personal and financial reasons, but still worry about the stigma attached to having 'just the one.' This is easily compounded by news of hearing the traits experienced by adults who were lonely as children, and the belief an only child will automatically be isolated or unhappy in some way.

GoodtoKnow Family Editor, Stephanie Lowe, has one child. She feels very strongly about the negative way parents of singletons are made to feel. Steph says "'Only children are weird' is the stigmatising thought that sits rent-free in my head, and I am trying my best to unpick it. I have one child, he's six. I'm one of four and my husband is one of five - we remember viewing only children as this rare 'other' specimen throughout our childhood - they got the TV remote to themselves, never wore hand-me-downs and every day seemed like 'yes day' for them. They were living the life. 

But, we were always led to believe only children were selfish, and 'didn't know how to share'. My husband and I always assumed we would have a bigger family but it hasn't happened for us, for many reasons. My feelings towards only having one child change depending on my mood but one thing remains certain the 'only children are weird' idea is a myth, a socially constructed BS narrative ingrained in me - origin unknown. In fact, some of the most selfish people I know came from a big family....'  

"The 'only children are weird' idea is a myth, a socially constructed BS narrative ingrained in me - origin unknown."

Stephanie Lowe

It's therefore good news, that research has debunked all myths relating to 'only child syndrome.' Those with the innate belief that not having siblings results in poor social skills, selfishness and isolation, need to rethink their stance on this - the research found no reliable scientific evidence that being an only child has any impact on personality, behaviour, or well-being.

In fact, the myths were actually disproven many years ago, but people continue to search for anecdotal evidence proving their own stereotypical views about children. Speaking to Good Housekeeping, psychologist Susan Newman, said "These myths always had holes in them; research from the ‘70s showed they were just plain wrong. They are, unfortunately, baked into our culture, like ageism, sexism and other stereotypes. No matter what the research or friends show you, people don’t change their perceptions so easily. And while only children and their parents don’t believe these myths, it’s hard to change the thinking of the general population."

She adds "The differences between onlies and those raised with siblings are minimal or non-existent. How a child turns out has more to do with the way parents are raising them than it does with how many siblings they have. Particularly today with the advent of technology. Only children are not as lonely as they are connected all the time through texting and social media. All the tech has reduced the amount of loneliness not only for only children but all children."

There are actually many benefits and positives to having an only child, as Newman continues to point out.

13 benefits of having or being an only child

  1. Parents have more energy and more patience as they aren't dividing out their attention.
  2. Parents have more time to listen to their child and spend quality time with them.
  3. Parents of singletons have more time for each other, and their relationship.
  4. This means they have more time to pursue their own likes and interests.
  5. Only children have the ability to socialise just as well as children with siblings.
  6. Only children demonstrate resilience, and a developed ability to entertain themselves.
  7. Having no choice but to amuse themselves nurtures creativity.
  8. It's easier and cheaper to take one child on holiday.
  9. This gives only children the opportunity to have different cultural experiences that parents of multiples might not be able to afford or navigate.
  10. Only children typically have a close bond with their parents.
  11. This secure attachment offers a sense of security and trust that they take into adulthood.
  12. The absence of sibling rivalry can be positive, as this has been cited as a reason for poor self-esteem in multiples. 
  13. Only children can demonstrate an academic edge because their parents had time to focus solely on their education. 

The number of families choosing to have one child is also on the rise. According to the Pew Research Center in the US, the number of mothers having one child doubled in the last generation. This was a jump from from 11% in 1976 to 22% in 2015. Some areas of Europe are reporting numbers as high as 47%. Alongside financial constraints and personal choice, newer threats such as climate change and the political issues around the world are also impacting family size.

Newman concludes "It is the parenting approach more than the number of siblings that a child does or doesn’t have that contributes to raising a happy, well-adjusted child. Parents are the best teachers; they instil the foundation, structure, and skills a child takes into the world and equips him to function well and to be kind and supportive of others yet know how to protect themselves and be resilient."

For more on parenting, take a look at out guides to parenting styles, including slow parenting, authoritative parenting and therapeutic parenting

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.