OK, let's be quite clear, there is no such thing as 'Only Child Syndrome.' Gandhi didn't have it, despite being an only child, because it didn't and doesn't exist. 'Only Child Syndrome' or OCS is a myth based on bogus science and old fashioned prejudice much like the myth that autism is caused by vaccines or gayness can be ‘cured’ or psychopaths are the product of divorced parents.
So why do we all know, or think we do, exactly what 'Only Child Syndrome' is? Because it's all around us, in the work place, on TV, at parties. Pushy, demanding, entitled only children.
The fact is when you break it down ‘Only Child Syndrome’ functions like any social prejudice; it is at once deliberately vague and all encompassing. In practice it can include almost any negative personality trait you care to ascribe to it since when someone without siblings commits a social indiscretion it is explained away as ‘Oh he’s an only child’ or ‘I bet she’s an only child.’ Conversely, if an only child behaves ‘normally’ or admirably then it is discounted as an aberration ‘Wow I can’t believe you’re an only child!’
But though OCS can usefully incorporate any unpleasant personality trait, I think we can all agree, there is a core list of 'symptoms.'
1. Spoiled. I'd estimate 'spoiled' represents 90% of OCS. This is because only children have had too much attention and too much stuff thanks to overcompenation from their barren and/or guilt ridden parents. But 'spoiling' is itself an old fashioned, ill-defined term with no formally recognised clinical definition. 'Spoiled' is really just a layperson's 'put down' aimed at parents of children who mis-behave in social situations by throwing tantrums, demanding more stuff and attention and insisting on getting their own way. Since this describes 99.9% of normal children at some time or another, it's difficult to see this as a 'syndrome' and if a child does these things regularly you should be looking for an actual clinical diagnosis from an acutal professional like Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Callus and Unemotional Disorder or even just Deafness. Just because a person is lucky like Bill Gates' kids, doesn't automatically mean they're 'spoiled'.
2. Can't share. This 'symptom' of 'OCS' is supposedly caused by the only child never being forced to share with siblings. But since only children have always attended childcare, school, playgroups, joined clubs and had friendships with neighbours, classmates and relatives, they have had ample oppoortunity to learn to share. Once again if any childmreally can't share by age 8 or 9 that should also be checked out by a pediatrician.
3. Weirdly mature. This is supposedly due to the only child being around adults a lot. If indeed this is true, and yes there is some evidence that only children do have higher verbal skills, I'm left wondering why this is a bad thing. Aren't immature children more of a problem? Turning 'maturity' into a negative is a little weird. And remember Manny from Modern Family is a fictiious character based on only child stereotypes, he's not a real person.
4. Narcissistic. Well perhaps having been the centre of attention you might have got to like it, or on the other hand, you might have had your fill of the spotlight and now enjoy basking in the shadows. It's all conjecture since narcissism has nothing to do with parental attention. The fact is people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder aren't created by too much parental attention, they're the product of negative attention, even parental abuse. This comes down to the quality of parenting. Narcissistic parents often create narcissistic children by refusing to see them as separate from themselves. They do this with one, two or 12 children.
5. Some have talked of OCS making children risk averse thanks to over-protectiveness by anxious parents wanting to prevent their only egg from getting cracked. Well there is some evidence that first born children are more eager to please their parents thanks to their strong bonds and gratitude for all that love and attention. And there's evidence too that first born and only children are less likely to engage is physically risky behaviour since they have been heavily protected as children. But whether being physically risk averse translates into being intellectually risk averse is up for debate. I wouldn't describe Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Anthony Hopkins or Robyn Williams, all only children, as risk averse.
6. Poor leadership skills. This one is weird and I can only trace it back to a odd piece of research done by some Australians in China that isn't backed up by any other research. If it's true then I guess Franklin D Roosevelt, Condeleeza Rice, John Lenon and Ghandi are exceptions.
7. A loner. Only children are commonly believed to spend a lot of time alone with books, babies and 'imaginary' friends and this is widely considered a bad thing.
So given it's obvious bogusness you've got to wonder where this syndrome came from.
Though the prejudice and fear of small families is as old as the bible the 'only child syndrome' can be traced back to a seminal piece of 'scientific research' in the late 19th Century. This 'study' was conducted at a time when scientific rigour as we know it today in the field of psychology, didn't exist and yet the fashion for science gave the 'results' the aura of validity. This was a time when people placed credence in Phrenology, a bogus science that predicted an individual's personality, career path and even future by analysing the shape and contours of their head and face. It was a time when women were considered too emotional and irrational to vote, when gay men were imprisoned as criminals and Africans weren’t even considered human.
The 'scientific study' that formalised the prejudice against only children was conducted by an American Psychologist G Stanley Hall and published in1896. Hall was at the time one of the foremost psychologists and ‘child experts’ of his day and the founder of the American Psychological Society so his opinion carried considerable weight.
After conducting a methodologically flawed survey of around 1000 children in schools across America, he came to the sweeping conclusion that children described as 'peculiar' by their teachers were most likely to be only children and therefore "Being an only child is a disease in itself."
It's no coincidence that Hall’s flawed conclusions mirrored his own prejudices and those of his peers and mentors Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Carl Jung all of whom considered only children to be in danger of dysfunctionality. As we now know, a flawed 'study' can lead you to any conclusion you choose. The most obvious flaw being that 'peculiarity' is open to myriad interpretations both negative and positive.
It is true that only children were a rarity at this time and unsurprisingly looked upon as something alien and suspicious. With contraception still primitive,unreliable and frowned upon by all major religions no one had real control of their family size. In any case, the large family was an aspiration and considered something of a blessing by God providing as it did safety in numbers in one secure familiar hub. Six children represented an abundance of bread winners and labourers but also a social security net against unemployment, an insurance policy in case of illness, disability or death, and the guarantee of care in your old age. It was a case of the more the merrier.
The downside of large families was the unruly number of children inflicted on households, communites and schools. This gave rise to an attitude towards child rearing that was as tough as the life for which it was a preparation. Parents were advised to be strict, unforgiving and violent and to avoid 'spoiling' at all costs. A baby should be fed strictly according to the clock no matter how much it screamed. Such discipline started early and intensified with age. Children were to be seen and not heard, and with the strap as reinforcement, they soon learned their place at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Teachers adhered strictly to the philosophy of “Spare the rod and spoil the child’ and corporal punishment was considered an integral part of a good education. For parents it was like having barbarians in the house that had to be tamed and broken, like a working dog or horse.
The job of 'unspoiling' children was naturally taken up by the large number of sibilngs in a household who beat, bullied, argued, competed and teased each other into conformity. Sibling rivalry proved a most effective tool for parents who could turn their backs on the rough and tumble, or send it out into the street and let nature take its course.
In this context a one child family must have seemed entirely inadequate. An only child getting all that parental attention without the steadying hand of siblings was inevitably going to be spoiled.
This attitude to only children persisted throughout the 20th Century reinforced by television programs, movies and books. But as the role of the traditional family changed from safety net to social hub, the popular image of the sibling shifted from disciplinarian to buddie. As the middle class headed out to the suburbs parents now saw siblings as a provider of companionship rather than a source of wrathful control. The siblings in the Brady Bunch and the Partidge family gently guided one another through the struggles of childhood and the teen years, laughing and practical joking their way through family crises and conflict.
Now the only child looked even more weird, sitting alone in a home surrounded by toys. Spoiled and lonely.
By the end of the 20th Century there'd been a revolution in the way we raise children. We don’t hit or smack them, we don't expect them to be seen and not heard in fact we arrange our lives around their needs, organising playdates and meetups, a raft of extra-curricular activities, camps and music lessons. We don’t leave them to cry and feed them by the clock and we'd never leave them alone unless they requested it. These days the expert advise is that you can’t spoil a baby and children’s psychological welfare and self esteem needs careful tending to as much as their physical needs. Children win prizes just for entering and everyone gets a medal. By the standards of a century ago, all children today are spoiled, only or not.
In the century since G Stanley Hall there have been hundreds of scientifically rigorous studies of only children that have found them to be normal in every way.
An only child herself, Toni Falbo from the University of Texas has done more than anyone to dispel the myths surrounding only children. In a series of meta-analyses of more than 100 studies conducted over the last 60 years, she came to the conclusion that only children were entirely normal.
Rather than ‘spoiling’ them, Falbo found all that exclusive parental attention has some advantages. Only children, like all first borns, have slightly higher verbal skills possibly due to increased contact with their parents through reading and one on one interaction. They tend to do better in IQ tests and go further in their education, thanks to the increased financial resources of their parents and because of higher parental expectations. And they have closer bonds and a more positive relationship with their parents.
Most telling was Falbo’s research in China during the 90s. With its forcibly imposed one-child policy, Chinese only children had for years been likened to little emperors and empresses. But other than having higher verbal abllities, Falbo found Chinese only children to be nothing but normal.
In May 2015 the Pew Research Centre published the latest research on what Americans consider the ideal family size. For 48% the ideal is two children whereas just 3% felt one child to be best. We can only assume negative stereotypes and a belief in 'Only Child Syndrome' inform this 'ideal' despite the fact that one in four will go on to have one child.
For me, that is a sad statistic. It means that millions of parents who stop at one child are being made to feel unnecessarily guilty and inadequte thanks to negative myths and stereotypes. It means that millions of other parents are going on to have a second child for no good reason other than to 'save' their first from the non-existent 'Only Child Syndrome.'
There is another big difference in the way we raise our children today. We teach them to recognise that applying inaccurate stereotypes to large groups of people based on their sex, race, gender, religion or sexual preferences is wrong.
Isn't it time we stopped stereotyping only children too?