Only Children

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Only Children

Only children are people who grow up without siblings. They have been stereotyped as "selfish," "lonely," and "maladjusted." Early in the twentieth century, the emerging discipline of psychology portrayed only children as inevitably pathological. However, since that time, hundreds of studies about only children have been conducted, and the over-all conclusion is that only children are no more selfish, lonely, or maladjusted than people who grow up with siblings. Thus, the maturing discipline of psychology no longer views only children as inevitably pathological (Falbo and Poston 1993).

The highest percentage of one-child families in the United States can be found among families formed during the Great Depression. Among white women who began their families during this period, as many as 25 percent had only one child. Immediately after World War II, the average rose to four children per couple. This so-called Baby Boom ended in the late 1960s, and the one-child family gradually became more common again, especially among single-parent families (Falbo 1984).

Researchers have evaluated only children in terms of five main developmental outcomes: intelligence, achievement, personality, sociability, and psychological adjustment. Intelligence (usually measured in terms of standardized ability tests, such as IQ tests) and achievement (measured typically in terms of the number of years of education attained or the prestige of occupations) are the two most commonly studied outcomes. Only children generally score slightly better than others on intelligence when they are young. However, during adolescence, the small advantage in intelligence disappears (Falbo and Polit 1986). On the other hand, only children appear to have and maintain an advantage in achievement. Even when the socioeconomic characteristics of their parents are controlled, analyses indicate that only children tend to complete more years of education than others and are likely to have more prestigious jobs (Blake 1989).

One of the concerns about only children is that their lack of sibling relationships might lead them to have less desirable personalities than those who grew up with siblings. However, the results of hundreds of personality studies suggest that only children are generally like children with siblings in most personality dimensions, including autonomy, generosity, and cooperativeness (Polit and Falbo 1987).

Research into the sociability of only children has yielded mixed results (Falbo and Polit 1986). Although a few large, longitudinal studies suggest that children without siblings may be prone to more solitary recreational activities than children with siblings (Claudy 1984), other studies indicate that only children marry at about the same age as others and are no more likely to divorce (Groat, Wicks, and Neal 1984).

Many studies have also examined the psychological adjustment of only children, typically basing assessments on omnibus adjustment inventories, such as the Junior Eysenck Personality Inventory. Taken as a whole, these studies indicate that only children tend to score much like people with siblings. A few studies have reported that many only children receive services at psychological clinics; however, this type of finding should not be construed to mean that only children are more likely to be maladjusted. Instead, the most plausible interpretation is that the parents of only children are more likely to get services for their children when they need them than are other parents (Falbo and Polit 1986).

In 1979, the People's Republic of China initiated policies that were designed to promote the number of one-child families. These policies were most successful among urban families. In the late 1980s and 1990s, one-child families predominated in urban China. During this time, more than 90 percent of the students in urban elementary schools were only children (Falbo and Poston 1993). Soon after the one-child policy began, people in the United States and some in China predicted that China would become a country filled with "little emperors," Chinese slang for spoiled brats.

Many studies have been done in China about the characteristics of only children to determine if, indeed, they are little emperors. However, these studies have, in turn, found that only children are similar to, inferior to, and superior to other children (Falbo and Poston 1993). Given the mix of these results, the consequences of the one-child policy on the development of children will likely remain a controversial subject.

See also:Academic Achievement; Childhood; Development: Self; Sibling Relationships


blake, j. (1989). family size and achievement. berkeley: university of california press.

claudy, j. g. (1984). "the only child as a young adult: results from project talent." in the single-child family, ed. t. falbo. new york: guilford.

falbo, t. (1984). "only children: a review." in the single-child family, ed. t. falbo. new york: guilford.

falbo, t., and polit, d. f. (1986). "a quantitative review of the only child literature: research evidence and theory development." psychological bulletin 100:176–189.

falbo, t., and poston, d. l. (1993). "the academic, personality, and physical outcomes of only children in china." child development 64:18–35.

groat, h. t.; wicks, j. w.; and neal, a. g. (1984). "without siblings: the consequences in adult life of having been an only child." in the single-child family, ed. t. falbo. new york: guilford.

polit, d. f., and falbo, t. (1987). "only children and personality development: a quantitative review." journal of marriage and the family 49:309–325.

roberts, l. c., and blanton, p. w. (2001). "i always knew mom and dad loved me best: experiences of only children." journal of individual psychology 57(2):125–140.