Jan Brady has been a poster child for the “middle child” stereotype since the “Brady Bunch” became ingrained in the American culture in the early 1970s. You might recall that Jan sometimes felt overlooked as she struggled to find her own niche and identity – caught between her ever-popular older sister, Marcia, and her younger sister, Cindy.
And while middle children are unfairly stereotyped as going through life with an insatiable craving for attention because of a perceived lack of it growing up, no birth order has been as stigmatized and maligned as much as “only children.”
The “lonely onlies” may not have a symbolic character to perpetuate their own stereotype – that of spoiled children who become self-centered adults — but one clearly isn’t needed. Say that someone is an only child and many people will instantly associate them with those undesirable traits, even if they don’t say it. And intuitively, it doesn’t sound unreasonable. If you’ve never had to share your toys or clothes, compete for parental attention or negotiate with siblings, it doesn’t sound like such a huge leap.
But Phyllis Gordon, director of Southern’s Family Therapy Clinic, says that an overwhelming amount of research on only children does not support the stereotype. She says the stigma originates from G. Stanley Hall, an American researcher and pioneer of child psychology. After collecting data from various sources in a way that has little resemblance to today’s scientific research methods, Hall actually went so far as to say just before the turn of the 20th century that “being an only child is a disease in itself.”
Whoa! Maybe that kind of comment could fly in the late 1800s, when large families were the norm and only children were rather uncommon. But can you imagine the fallout today if a researcher were to make that “analogy” about only children, or anyone’s children?
Just in the last 50 years, the percentage of kids under the age of 18 who fall into the category of being an only child has doubled – from 10 percent to 20 percent. So, in a typical classroom of 25 students, 5 of those students are only children, on average. Yet, the popular notion continues that they tend to be spoiled.
“Virtually all subsequent research on onlies has debunked the anecdotal and meaningless findings of Mr. Hall,” Gordon says. “But many parents continue to fear that being an only child will mean a lifetime of being unhappy, selfish, spoiled, lonely and maladjusted.”
Nevertheless, Gordon says there are some distinctive characteristics among only children of which parents should be aware. After all, birth order does play a role in the development of a child’s personality. Therefore, she offers a few suggestions to parents about raising only children, keeping in mind these are based on generalities and that each child is unique.
• First, don’t worry! An only child is not from another planet. And studies have shown that only children tend to feel more confident in school; score better in achievement, motivation and personal adjustment; and complete an addition year of education, on average, than their peers. And despite not having to grow up scrapping with siblings – and perhaps because of that — they tend to be more calm and patient with others. They learned early in life that their turn will come because it generally did in their more orderly childhoods.
• Be extra careful about pressuring them to succeed. Only children (and first borns) tend to be self-driven and conscientious. They often apply plenty of self-imposed pressure. When they do, outside pressure can be like pouring gasoline on a fire! It could create psychological and emotional problems. Again, each child is unique and some do need a nudge, or several nudges. But be aware of this tendency among only (and first-born) children.
• While only children are quite capable of making friends, it is important to give them those opportunities. Children learn some of their social skills from their siblings. So, it’s probably even more important for onlies to have opportunities to interact with other kids, whether they are play dates, after school activities or youth clubs and sports.
And just in case you needed any more assurance, just look at some of the many famous only children. They include:
• Franklin Delano Roosevelt
• Joe Montana
• Elvis Presley
• Nancy Reagan
• Ted Koppel
• Walter Cronkite
• Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
• Sammy Davis Jr.
• Laura Bush
• Maria Sharapova
The list goes on and on.