Study Finds That Only Children Are Not Friendless UrchinsS

Only children of the world, rejoice — a new study says "an only child isn't necessarily a loner, misfit and brat!"

Pamela Paul writes in the Times that a previous study had shown "that kindergarten teachers rated children without siblings worse in interpersonal skills, self-control and problem behaviors." And, she notes, conventional wisdom has it that siblings make kids better at relating to others. However, a new study shows that, by middle school, only children are just as sociable as other kids. The methodology:

Using a metric called "peer nomination," in which youths are asked to identify their friends by name, Dr. [Douglas] Downey and Dr. [Donna] Bobbitt-Zeher drew on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, with a sample size of 13,466 students in 7th through 12th grades. They then counted how many people named each individual as a friend. This was used to proximate social skills since the socially inept would be unlikely to have lots of friends. The result: children without siblings had just as many friends as children with siblings.

This listing-of-friends tactic is actually a little bit depressing, as is the coldness of its rationale ("the socially inept would be unlikely to have lots of friends"). As a veteran of a number of child psychology studies (there should be a special support group for kids who grew up in close proximity to university psych departments), I remember that the questions about social life were, hands down, the most upsetting part. I'd never thought about whether I had "enough" friends until I encountered the question on a survey around age seven. And nowadays I wonder if there aren't better — or at least different — ways to measure kids' social skills than counting their friends. Are they kind to the friends they do have? Are they good at defusing arguments? Do they have insight into their own and other people's emotions? These questions seem worthy of asking about only children and those with siblings alike.

Still, it's nice to know that onlies aren't coming up short in the friend department. This should be a relief to parents who are tired of invasive questions about when they're going to "give" their child a sibling — not doing so isn't going to doom the kid to a life of loneliness. For my part, I'm not sure that social skills are the most important thing I've gotten out of being a sibling. My mom recently told me her rationale for having two kids: "so you'd have someone to complain about your parents with." And it has been increasingly nice, over the years, to have someone I can consider a familial teammate. I've known only children who forge these kinds of relationships with cousins or family friends, and there are certainly plenty of arenas in which one can complain about one's parents (when my mom had us, she probably hadn't thought about the Internet). Still, I'm glad to have my brother around — even if he hasn't made me any less inept.

The Only Child: Not A Loner? [NYT]

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