The Only Child Is Alright
Research shows that those raised without siblings score just as high in key personality traits—including generosity and social participation—as everyone else
Are only children selfish? Try self-sufficient, says Michelle Neuendorf, a lawyer living in Chicago.
The 40-year-old only child said that growing up without siblings definitely had its advantages.
“I’ve taken some risks in my life and I think that’s because I feel confident that I’ll figure it out,” she said. “Being on my own also taught me the fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy and as a lawyer, I think that’s very helpful.”
Neuendorf may be a reflection of what some argue is the hard-to-believe truth about only children: far from being selfish loners—a pervasive stereotype—only children are just as well-adjusted and successful as those who grew up with siblings, if not more so.
“As one psychotherapist explained to me, only children tend to have stronger primary relationships with themselves. And nothing provides better armor against loneliness,” only child-turned-journalist Lauren Sandler wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times.
Sandler, author of the new book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, cites hundreds of studies measuring character traits such as generosity, social participation, leadership and emotional stability in only children and those with siblings. The studies, Sandler writes, found that only children scored just as well. To boot, only children were found to have higher self-esteem and intelligence.
That all comes as good news to parents like Kay LiCausi, 41, a single mom in New Jersey with a 2-year-old daughter named Lily. LiCausi had worried about how being raised without a sibling would affect her child but now believes that all the attention she’s able to pay to Lily—instead of dividing it among two or more children—”will only contribute positively to her development and self esteem.”
She said she’ll travel with her daughter and also emphasize the role of friendships in the girl’s life.
“I’m quite confident that my strong-willed Lily will be just fine,” she said.
Only child Jenna Ekdahl, 24, of Philadelphia said growing up without siblings made her more independent—she learned to entertain herself—and perhaps better prepared her to pursue a career away from home as a magazine editor.
She can also testify to the benefits of having a parent’s attention all to yourself—a benefit that, for her, persists even into early adulthood.
“I loved spending time with my parents as a threesome and having one-on-one time with each of them. My mom and I attend a music festival together each year and my dad and I share interests like running, biking and hiking,” she said.
Pam Piccola-Fales, 32, of New York City, said she was actually grateful to avoid the conflicts that can come from growing up with siblings.
“My friends with siblings almost exclusively had beyond-bratty little brothers—real monsters or older sisters who were mean to us,” she said. “I can only think of one or two who had a close, positive relationship with a sibling as a child.”
And while having siblings is often heralded as helpful in teaching children to share, Neuendorf said that just because she never had to share anything with a brother and sister doesn’t mean she was bad at sharing.
“I never minded sharing because I didn’t have to do it on a regular basis so when I was asked to do it, it was no big deal,” she said. “I have a friend from a family of four and she jokes that it was survival of the fittest in her house and everyone protected to the death whatever they got.”
But only children do admit to the downsides of being raised without siblings. Among them: smothering—or, as Ekdahl calls it “pressure.”
“There was definitely a lot of pressure on me… seeing as how they had no one else to focus their attention on.”
She called a four-month period during her adolescence when her family hosted an exchange student “eye-opening.”
“I could actually come home at night without being bombarded with questions about school, swim practice, my life in general,” she said. “I loved it.”
Others say they appreciate the bonds they see among sets of siblings and wish they had experienced it themselves. Adam Krauss, 40, who lives in the Boston suburbs, feels that way as he raises his 4-year-old and 6-year-old.
“Watching our kids has probably made me wish for a sibling more than at any point in my life prior to this. There is an undeniable bond that they have that an only child will never really know,” he said.
But what may be the largest concern for only children is what happens when their parents get older. Sandler writes that, in her research, “facing one’s parents’ mortality alone… was the issue people felt most viscerally about when deciding whether they wanted to have one or more children.”
Piccola-Fales said that confronting the “scary” situation of aging parents on her own is indeed one of the reasons she plans on having more than one child.
“I’ve already started to talk to my parents about downsizing their stuff and about whether they might live with me when they get older,” she said. “And luckily, I’m pretty stable and have a good job—where might they be if I didn’t?”
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