The Only Child Myth

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

ByABC News
August 16, 2007, 3:01 PM

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.