Only children have been given a bad rap over the years. Ever since Stanley Hall, the ‘father of child psychology’, dubbed their condition “a disease in itself”, they’ve been characterized by ill-wishers as spoiled, bratty, maladjusted, or worse.
Is there any truth to these claims? Anecdotally, many would say there is. But then, anecdotally, plenty of people used to say that mercury does wonders for skin complexion, that adding radioactive chemicals to your drinking water is great for general health, and that the world is flat (and some do, indeed, still say this).
In reality, most of the research on this topic has been chipping away at the pop-psychology edifice of only-child-maladjustment for years. Much of this research has come from the country which, if Stanley Hall’s claims were true, would be one giant laboratory for manufacturing unhappy sibling-less youngsters: China.
So much one-child hysteria has emerged from the Middle Kingdom that a new slur was created for the kids: ‘Little Emperors’. These children, so the story goes, had been so vigorously pampered that they can neither tolerate failure nor deal with anything other than getting their own way. They were, as one English journalist put it, a “behavioural time-bomb.”
But the time bomb ended up going off with the explosiveness of a budget firework in a rainshower. Countless studies found that, in fact, no discernible ill-effects could be found in China’s one-child population versus its sibling-abundant population. Some studies even showed that only-children were more mentally healthy than their siblinged counterparts. These studies, along with similar findings in the West, began to convince researchers that being an only child wasn’t such a burden after all.
And new research out this week seems to strengthen the view that only children have it best. A new study from the UK, which tracked the lives of 40,000 British households over time, found that only children were on average much happier than those with brothers or sisters. The findings suggest that “sibling bullying” could be a problem for many children – a problem that only children, for obvious reasons, manage to avoid. The authors of the survey also suggest that only children may benefit from not having to compete for sweets, space, or attention.
So maybe only children are better off than the rest of the world after all. This should be welcome news, since only children are becoming more and more common throughout the world. Is it time to drop the stereotypes?