Only children are so easy for people to hate. They are, as the caricature goes, spoiled from having been loved and provided for too much, without having to endure the character-building benefits siblings provide: being ignored, being forced to jockey for the TV remote, enduring the humiliation of hand-me-downs, and all the other resource-competitive hard knocks that allegedly make you a better person by virtue of being occasionally ignored.
If you’re a parent of just one child, the American two-child dream (™) requires other people—strangers, teachers, acquaintances—to ask and ask often if you’re going to have another. “Bus is full,” you learn to reply, but the conversation cannot stop there. No, you are now obligated to parse the pros and cons of having one kid or more to show that you understand the weight and responsibility of your decision, the implicit air of selfishness it embodies within it, as well as proof of your own self-reflection as a person who has dared to swim against the tide. Although just under a quarter of American families have one children—and the number rises in metropolitan areas—it’s still seen as an anomaly, and generally, the following points/excuses must be made by you at some point in the conversation:
- Yes, I know what people say about only children being self-centered, lonely, and maladjusted.
- But hey, it’s not like all siblings get along so hot!
- There’s a lotta bad feelings sometimes! There’s competition and resentment!
- Plus, I mean, I feel like I got lucky. I had this one pretty great kid, what if the second kid is like a serial killer?
- I don’t want to tempt fate.
- Plus, I think I can still impart some communal values like compassion and civic-mindedness with one kid—probably even better than I would otherwise, because I have more time on account of not having two children.
- In a city like Los Angeles, having two is just too expensive, one is manageable.
- Even if I lived somewhere easier/cheaper I would probably still just have the one though.
- I feel like I know my limits as a parent and they fit perfectly with this one kid.
- But hey, two kids do seem PERFECT!
- Even though I know a lot of dicks and they are not only children per se!
If the other person has more kids, and they usually do, they will continue this conversation ad nauseum by offering up a series of defenses for how two or more kids is actually great, not so bad, actually easier than one because by the time you have a second one you’re an old hand and the two siblings occupy each other (LOL, uh-huh), or how it all balances itself out because two kids is the universe’s idea of sheer procreative symmetry. (OK, no one ever says that last thing, but I wish they would. It would be a new argument for once.)
But I wish we could just accept that only children, just like children with siblings, can either be awesome or terrible, and that, just like with anything related to parenting, categories are not definitive. “Only” is an important adjective in front of “child,” but it’s not the most important one. Which is why I was pleased to read a thing at Vice where Mike Pearl talked with two experts on only children—Dr. Toni Falbo and Dr. Carl Pickhardt—who help suss out what only children are really up against, at least according to the research.
It turns out that not all only children are the golden demon spawn of helicopter parents who intend to dote them straight into a life of indulgence and alienation. There are good things and bad things about being an only, just like there are good things and bad things about having siblings. It’s not shocking, yet it must be repeated until the parents of only children stop feeling that they must reflexively defend their position. Yes, sometimes the child is the only shot at parenting so the parents do throw all in to get it right, Pickhardt notes. But Falbo counters this with another common scenario: some only children are accidents, or results of parents not caring too much about having children, so you don’t see the overbearing resource-dousing.
The interview remains magnificently even-handed from there on out. For instance:
But only children do usually get a larger share of the parents’ attention than they would otherwise, right?
Pickhardt: The only child gets all the social, emotional, and material parenting—and focus—that the parents have to give. What that means is that they don’t have to share that with anybody on the one hand, but they also have to absorb everything that the parents have to give.
And your research has shown that that’s actually good in measurable ways, right? They have higher self-esteem?
Falbo: Not to say they have very high self-esteem, but, on average they score a little higher in a statistically significant way, but that might be one point out of 20; so it’s not a huge difference. It’s enough to be statistically significant. And, of course there’s going to be a lot of variety: There are going to be some people with low self-esteem and some people who have very high self-esteem. So we’re just looking at the average score across a group of people.
Slightly higher self esteem is something I think nearly everyone I know could use. But this confidence, the experts note, is not just self-puffery from over-praise. It’s about the fact that when you’re an only child, you spend more time hanging out with adults and learn to converse on that level. This makes you feel from a younger age that you’re on par with adults, which would necessarily set you apart from your peers.
Only children also interact more with teachers, which is more likely to bode well in terms of attention and guidance throughout their education. This doesn’t seem like a disadvantage to me, and it can also happen in children with siblings who are loners and read a lot of grown-up books, or in siblings who are significantly younger than their older siblings and who, in essence, have an only-child experience.
And of course, that experience—for its slight “statistically significant” boost in self-esteem and whatnot—comes with its corresponding downsides:
Pickhardt: The downside of that is that they can be pretty hard on themselves— because when they say to themselves, I am in this family. I can have an equal say to my parents, and equal standing, what they sometimes do is they apply equal standards and say, I should be able to do as well as my parents, and they get exaggerated standards of performance. So they push themselves pretty hard. If you have an only child, generally speaking, you don’t have to do much pushing, because they’re over-pushing themselves.
How can that hurt them?
Pickhardt: They can be pretty critical when they don’t do as well as they like. They’re pretty strongly self-directed. They’re usually self-willed because they’re used to looking out for their own self-interests. Very often they can be quite possessive in terms of possessions, and privacy, and time to themselves. They’re pretty sure of the values that they hold, and they can sense that they know very often what is right. Often in adult relationships, they’re not very comfortable in conflict, because they just haven’t had much experience with it.
And again, as Falbo stated, there’s a lot of variety in this group. Not all only children are self-directed, self-starting go-getters. Not all of them are bad at conflict resolution. Not all of them get their way all the time or never learn to share.
Rather, as a group—having experienced less default coexistence in childhood—they just may approach their needs differently. These experts say that because only children don’t attach to a sibling, they may attach more to certain items, but they also note that some only children, because they are accustomed to not having to compete for things, are more relaxed about possessions as a result.
It’s hard to pinpoint any sort of sweet spot in general, though every family can reach a balance in the individual instance. In a way, this mirrors the self esteem debate we seem to always be having—when is self esteem too much? When does it make someone narcissistic and entitled, and when does it give someone a solid foundation from which to move through the world?
This is a country that is very individualistic but wants to be communal, so we persist in believing that those lacking siblings must be some source of major selfishness, hosts for our least generous impulses. Deeper into the interview, though, there’s a discussion about how only children navigate cooperation and compromise (just fine actually). And other myths are dispelled—only children have as many friends as children with siblings, and like anyone else, they, too, can figure out how to adapt in romantic relationships.
The only child may have one advantage related to only-child preconceptions—by this, we mean the only-child excuse:
Falbo: Sometimes people use being an only child as an excuse, so if they’re really nervous about something or maybe they’re called out about bad behavior, they say, “Oh well I’m an only child. What can you expect?” So I think it just becomes a way of them explaining themselves so they can get away with it. You know, “I’m just defective permanently, blah blah blah.”
Falbo says the best response is to not accept such pretexts for jerkiness. To tell them they aren’t a child anymore. And for what it’s worth, you could make the same excuse about being a middle child or even the baby of the family or any number of arbitrary designations if you don’t want to be accountable. Being a jerk has nothing to do with how many siblings you have, and everything to do with whether you happen to like rationalizing the worst parts of yourself. Unfortunately, absolutely anyone can be skilled at that.
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Illustration by notable only child Tara Jacoby