Are The Stereotypes About Only Children True?

Ever wondered (or worried about) whether Only Child Syndrome is real? Here’s what the research says about only children being spoiled, bossy and selfish…


As I sat around the dinner table with three mom friends a few weeks ago, I asked them to throw out some adjectives about only children without overthinking it.

Spoiled. Selfish. Unable to share. Sensitive. Bossy. Uptight. Perfectionist. Lonely. Socially awkward. Weird. Mama’s boy/girl.

At that point, I shrieked, “Please! I am none of those things!” They all swiveled their heads dramatically in my direction. “Okay, maybe I’m a little sensitive,” I admitted and they all burst out laughing. 

The stereotypes about only children have always driven me batty because I’m the opposite of selfish, spoiled and socially inept. So, I decided to take a deep dive into only-child research and what I found was fascinating.

In this article, I’ll cover:

  • Where the stereotypes about only children come from
  • Recent research that debunks Only Child Syndrome
  • The upsides of being an only child
  • The downsides of being an only child
  • How parents can help their only child avoid the stereotypes 


The origins of Only Child Syndrome


While most stereotypes have complex origins, Only Child Syndrome can be traced to a single controversial study published in 1896. 

In A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children, renowned psychologist G. Stanley Hall asked respondents to fill out a questionnaire about different categories of “peculiar” children they knew. About 200 questionnaires contained information about only children and almost all of them described onlies as excessively spoiled, selfish and socially deficient.

Despite the fact that the sample size was small and the results were anecdotal, the idea that only children were deeply flawed took on a life of its own. G. Stanley Hall even famously declared, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.”

Gee, thanks, G.


Recent research on only children debunks the myth


Now that our research standards are higher, we can safely conclude that G. Stanley Hall was wrong. The first researcher to take on Hall’s theory was social psychologist (and disgruntled only child) Toni Falbo. In 1986, she reviewed 115 studies on only children and concluded that they don’t differ from children with siblings in terms of personality.

More recently, German researchers investigated whether only children are more narcissistic than people with siblings and found that this myth was also false.

“I’m so glad to hear that all those stereotypes are nonsense,” says mom-of-one Tracy. “I’ve been worrying myself sick that my child will be this unsocialized, raised-by-wolves kind of kid. It’s stupid because she’s an amazing kid who has plenty of friends and is generous and kind, but people’s comments get to me. One friend even asked me if socialization classes for only children are a thing! Girl, please.”


The upsides of being an only child


Far from being a “disease,” onliness comes with several advantages. In her review, Falbo found that only children have better relationships with their parents than children with siblings. They also surpass everyone except firstborns and people from two-child families in terms of intelligence and achievement.

A recent study by Chinese researchers found that only children had more gray matter in the area of the brain associated with creativity.

From my completely non-scientific perspective, my childhood was much calmer than my children’s will ever be. I didn’t have anyone to compete or fight with and I received plenty of attention from my parents (but not an overbearing amount). 

My three daughters – who were all born in less than three years because I had twins the second time – fight and scream over literal specks of dust. I’m not kidding. I found them arguing over a dust bunny once.

I worry about the effect their competitiveness has on their developing brains. I feel like they’re in constant fight-or-flight mode. When I spend time alone with one of them, I can see her relax. I wish I could bottle those laidback only-child vibes and give them a dose whenever they need it.


The downsides of being an only child


Being an only child isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. The Chinese study found that onlies scored lower in agreeableness, meaning that they tend to be less empathetic and have lower social skills than children with siblings.

Only children also rate themselves as significantly less sociable than people who have siblings. Some experts believe this is because they have to learn to be independent and entertain themselves from a young age.


How parents can help their only child avoid the stereotypes


There’s some good news: Parents can help their children sidestep the potential pitfalls of being an only child.

Here’s how:

  • Get social: If you’re worried about your child’s social skills, schedule play dates with friends or cousins and enrol them in classes with other kids their age. Daycare and preschool can also teach them important skills such as taking turns, sharing and being kind before they head to big school.


  • Encourage independence: It can be easy for parents of only children to fall into the trap of doing everything for them and trying to protect them from harm, but kids need the space and freedom to make their own decisions and mistakes (within age-appropriate boundaries). Try to give your child some choices (“Would you like to wear the red shirt or blue short today?”) and encourage them to resolve their own conflicts with friends by role-playing some possible solutions instead of intervening on their behalf.


  • Focus on effort rather than achievement: Some only children may feel pressured to achieve at school and in life if their parents place all their hopes and dreams on their shoulders. Try to praise your child’s efforts rather than focusing solely on results and let them know that you’ll love and support them no matter what they choose to do with their lives.


One doesn’t have to be a lonely number


Can I just say that I have tons of friends (they’re the siblings I never had), I’m overly empathetic (I really need to stop bursting into tears every single time Mufasa dies) and I literally begged my roommates to borrow my clothes so we could be like sisters? See ya, Only Child Syndrome. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!


Continue exploring


Want to find out more? Read How to deal with only-child shaming and What causes secondary infertility?