Is Only Child Syndrome Real?

"Only child syndrome" is the belief that only children are spoiled, bossy, and antisocial— but this stigma isn't actually true. Find out how an only child's personality is formed, and learn ways to prevent negative behaviors in your kid. 

parents with only child
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Single-child families are experiencing tremendous growth, up from 10 million in 1972 to about 15 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What's the reason behind these only child statistics? Many parents are actively choosing to have a singular kid, and they're also marrying later in life, which sets the stage for fertility problems that can leave them with a small family by default.

Plus, the stigma once associated with only children isn't as strong as it was 30 years ago, according to Susan Newman, PhD, a psychologist, the mother of an only child, and author of Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only (Broadway Books, 2001). "The most common myth—that 'only child syndrome' makes them spoiled, bossy, and socially inept —hasn't panned out," says Newman, who has been studying only children for two decades. "Studies show that only children are no different from other kids. Specifically, they're not more spoiled, lonely, selfish, or overly dependent."

Actually, there's plenty of good news about only child traits. Research shows that they're self-confident, well-organized, and ambitious. In fact, an only child's personality benefits from his parents' undivided attention and emotional support in several ways, say experts. The dynamic instills high self-esteem, fosters maturity, and enables a child to develop a strong identity.

"Only children typically have strong personalities and know who they are because their needs aren't overlooked, and they don't compete for attention," explains Erika Karres, author of Make Your Kids Smarter (Andrews McMeel, 2001) and an educational consultant who practices out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

As it turns out, the fact that only children spend so much time alone is also an advantage. "Onlies are often creative and focused because they need to learn to entertain themselves. They'll build that cathedral out of blocks," Karres says.

Preventing Only Child Syndrome

Sometimes, the actions of parents can contribute to the negative traits associated with only child syndrome. Here are the most common pitfalls and effective strategies on how to sidestep them.

Don't Overprotect Your Only Child

"These parents put all their eggs in one basket, so it's natural for them to be extra cautious," Newman says. "When an only child starts to walk, his parents hover over him and don't let him fall. When an only child gets in a fight with a friend, her parents rescue her. She can't learn how to navigate the world if her parents always are interfering or fighting her battles." When it's appropriate, try to look the other way, and check in with parents of siblings. Asking them what their parameters are can help you strike a balance between protection and overprotection.

Encourage Social Interaction

Since only children are the center of their parents' universe, these kids may have difficulty relating to peers. "Early socialization helps them learn how to share, take turns, and resolve conflicts," says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City. Make sure your child spends plenty of time with other kids her age through play dates and classes. If you live near family, time spent with cousins in the same age group can offer sibling socialization benefits, too.

Don't Set Unrealistic Expectations

Some only children become perfectionists to please their parents, who may impose high (or even unrealistic) expectations on them because the child is their one shot at parenting success. Keep your expectations in line with your child's age and natural abilities, and assure him that he doesn't have to be the best at everything. If your daughter loves to draw, for example, that doesn't mean she has to (or will) become a gifted artist. Focus on her enjoyment of the activity rather than the goal of creating a mini Picasso.

Let Your Child Make Decisions

"When Mommy and Daddy are the sole directors of a kid's life, an only child can end up relying on their input before making a move. If you're always doing and thinking for your child, she won't learn to do and think for herself," says Shimm. To set the stage for future decision-making, give your toddler simple choices: At bedtime, does she want you to read her Babar or Curious George? Also, try not to make too many suggestions when your little one is playing, such as what color crayon to use or where to put the piece of puzzle. With a lot of love from you and some help from friends, your only child will turn into a well-adjusted little person.

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