The Only Child Myth

Is there any truth to the many stereotypes about "onlies"?


Aug. 17, 2007 — -- Spoiled, selfish and bratty are terms often used to describe only children, which suggest that being an only child is undesirable. Is there a grain of truth to the stereotype or is it just a myth?

Angela Hult is the mother of an only child and is an only child herself. She has felt the prejudice against so-called "onlies" firsthand. She says that when people find out that she's an only child the response is often, "Oh you must have been a spoiled brat. You must be really bossy. And wow, I wonder what you're going to be like to deal with?"

The myth of the only child dates back to the late 1800s when G. Stanley Hall, known as the founder of child psychology, called being an only child "a disease in itself."

Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University and the author of "Parenting an Only Child," says the myth has been perpetuated ever since. "People articulate that only children are spoiled, they're aggressive, they're bossy, they're lonely, they're maladjusted," she said. "And the list goes on and on and on."

But is there any science that makes the stereotype stick? "No," Newman said. "There have been hundreds and hundreds of research studies that show that only children are no different from their peers."

In order to find out for ourselves, "20/20" gathered a group of onlies in New York and asked them whether they thought the stereotype is true.

"I'm an only child. I don't think I'm that bossy," Corinne said, and 16-year-old Ben said, "I'm sure there is but it's not because … they're only children. I mean, it depends on the parents. If the parents are indulgent parents you can have 30 kids, they're all gonna be overindulged."

While a battery of studies shows no difference with onlies when it comes to bossiness or acting spoiled, it turns out there is a significant difference when it comes to intelligence. A landmark 20-year study showed that increased one-on-one parenting produces higher education levels, higher test scores and higher levels of achievement.

What explains that apparent advantage? Newman says, "They have all their parents financial resources to get them extra lessons, to get them SAT training but more critical is the one-on-one time at the dinner table."

Which means more reading time, more homework time and eventually better test scores. Hult said of her son, "I think we felt as a family that we were able to give him more attention and spend more time together and really focus on him."

A generation ago, only 10 percent of families had only children. Today that percentage has more than doubled. And it's no wonder — it costs between $200,000 and $300,000 to raise one child to the age of 17, and that's not including the cost of college.

"Families have changed," said Newman. "I actually call the only child the 'new traditional family.'"

And yet, despite the explosion of families with onlies, a recent poll suggests only 3 percent of Americans believe one is an ideal number. Could it be that the myth of the only child persists?

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