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Your One and Only: Educational psychologist dispels myths surrounding only children

If you’re sitting in a class or at work, take a gander at the folks around you.

See that lonely, spoiled, dysfunctional, narcissist in the corner? He’s probably an only child. And your boss? She’s got to be a hard-driving, conservative, uptight firstborn. The easygoing rebel who’s clowning around without a care in the world must have been the baby in his brood, and that virtually invisible people-pleaser is a middle kid.

Toni Falbo
Dr. Toni Falbo

Do gross generalizations like that sound a little bit ridiculous to you? They do to Dr. Toni Falbo as well.

Falbo, a professor of educational psychology in the College of Education and faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, has devoted about 30 years to myth-busting, focusing on only children and one-child families. Her exhaustive research has led her to doubt the credulity of many birth order pop-psych books on the market these days and also to be the most-often quoted expert in the world on a topic that continues to foster lively debate.

“Back in the ’70s when I started my work, I was quite interested in stereotypes, and the stereotype of the only child is a very powerful one,” says Falbo, an only child herself and the mother of an only child. “For a century, only children have had this reputation for being lonely, unpleasant, selfish and maladjusted. People have tried to make parents who have only one child feel guilty and wrong for choosing to do so—many polls show that lots of families have a second child for no other reason than to prevent the first child from growing up without siblings.”

To trace the negative stereotype to its roots, one has to leap back 100 years and look at the scholarship of a turn-of-the-century American child psychology expert named G. Stanley Hall, the erstwhile “Father of Modern Psychology.”

“Hall was a product of his time, and his philosophies on child-rearing and family size reflect that,” says Falbo. “His was a rural, agricultural point of view and, to him, childhood was about the fraternizing and socializing children enjoyed with a large number of brothers, sisters and cousins, the adventures and explorations in the countryside and a house filled with kids. He described the only child experience as ‘damaging,’ and that stigma stuck for a long time.”

Hall, in fact, went well beyond simply calling the only child experience damaging and is credited with stating, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.”

Despite a scientific study in the late 1920s that clearly refuted Hall’s assertions and proved only children were as normal as other kids and a steady string of similar studies through the 20th century, Hall’s proclamation held sway, with the same appeal as a National Enquirer headline.

Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of U.S. women having only one child rose from about 10 percent to 23 percent.After all, Sigmund Freud had written that only children were prone to sexual identity problems and psychiatrists such as Alfred A. Messer were imploring parents to adopt a second child if they were unable to conceive just to give the family some semblance of emotional balance.

“If my research had shown that only children were sick, sick, sick,” says Falbo, “we’d be talking about Nobel prize-winning type results. My career would have taken off like a rocket. But conventional wisdom is wrong, and it seems that finding out kids are normal is not quite as exciting.”

When Falbo came on the scene three decades ago, her goal was to take the mass of existing information, conduct a scrupulous, comprehensive examination of 20th century research findings and produce reliable, definitive data. She culled through and analyzed more than 100 studies involving only children and reached the un-provocative, but highly newsworthy, conclusion that they were remarkably similar to their peers in most every way. The only child has difficulties with every independent activity and, sooner or later, they become useless in life. - Psychologist Alfred Adler, 1870-1937

Falbo’s findings were published in a book called “The Single Child Family,” in which a century’s worth of scholarship revealed that single children are not disadvantaged. They, in fact, seem to enjoy slight advantages in certain areas.

Among other things, research indicated that only children’s achievement as adults was somewhat higher than that of other children, especially when it came to educational attainment. Researchers hypothesized that this was because of the family’s increased financial resources and the uniquely close relationship that only children shared with their parents.

“Some of the ‘perks’ to being an only child are logical and simply have to do with physical resources and the amount of time parents have to devote to child-rearing,” says Falbo.  “When a college education, for example, has to be provided for one child as opposed to four, it’s more likely that the one child not only will get to go to college but also may be sent to a more prestigious, more expensive school. Everything from family trips to parental participation in the child’s school life may be enhanced because more resources and time are available.”

In Manhattan alone, roughly 30 to 40 percent of children are 'singletons.'With only children being immersed in an adult-oriented home environment from an early age and experiencing an interaction with parents that is undiluted by siblings, researchers assert that high achievement is a probability.

Rather than overindulge only children, parents may tend to push them to high achievement and have elevated expectations,” says Falbo. “These children tend to score slightly higher in verbal ability, go farther in school and have a little bit higher self-esteem, and a lot of this just has to do with more parent involvement and uninterrupted time with adults. High hopes can rest on that one child—you’ve got your only chance for a musical math genius who also knows ballet and how to speak six foreign languages.”

When it came to traits such as maturity, emotional stability and popularity only children did not distinguish themselves as different in studies, and as for the fear that only children lack in social skills and grow up feeling isolated and lonely, studies allayed apprehensive parents’ worries. According to Falbo, most children spend at least a portion of their early years in play groups, daycare and preschool, if nothing else, and that opportunities for interaction with peers and a healthy degree of socialization usually are present.

Elvis Presley Chelsea Clinton Alan Greenspan
Famous “onlies” include rock legend Elvis Presley, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan.

“It’s important to note that, overall, the differences between only children and other children were very slight,” says Falbo. “Factors like education level of the parents, the financial state of the family, emotional health and values of the parents, individual parenting styles and the genetic predisposition of the child have far, far more to do with how a child turns out than birth order and family size.”

Falbo’s conclusions were reinforced by research that she conducted in three Chinese provinces and the Beijing area in the early ’90s.

“About 25 years ago China decided that having lots of babies was a luxury it couldn’t afford,” says Falbo, “And the government implemented a one-child policy. People were told that in order for China to become a world-class power, everyone had to make sacrifices, and families were willing to. So I had an entire country of only children to examine.”According to the United Nations, of the 35 richest countries in the world only in Iceland, New Zealand and the U.S. are women producing enough babies to replace the existing population.

With a National Institutes of Health grant, Falbo set out to study 4,000 Chinese children in both rural and urban settings, looking at language and math skills as well as personality traits based on Chinese values, expectations and traditions.

“There was, and still is, a lot of discussion in China about this new generation of ‘little emperors,’” says Falbo. “People were very worried that these children would not reflect the collectivist values of China and would be discordantly independent and ‘me-oriented.’ People wondered if China would end up with an entire generation of self-centered, unable to share, ill-mannered, arrogant, spoiled brats. A lot of Chinese psychologists had been trained in G. Stanley Hall’s point of view, and their prognosis for society and these children was pretty dismal.”

As was the case in her earlier research, Falbo found that, whether in the east or west, only children did not show marked differences from children with siblings. Using self-descriptions from the children and descriptions from peers, teachers and one parent, Falbo concluded that the children had somewhat higher verbal ability, were good students and were not the arrogant centers of the universe that adults had feared. This is reassuring to a country that saw about 70 million children born between 1979 and 1999 alone, even with a state-sponsored program designed to shrink a swollen population that was running out of space and goods.

In Britain in 2001, about 17 percent of couples had only one child.With birthrates sharply declining in most developed nations and a record number of women opting to stop at one child, empirical evidence that “onlies” are not destined to be spoiled misfits or misanthropes is welcome news around the globe.

And if scientific longitudinal studies, confluence models and large-scale surveys from scholars like Falbo don’t allay fears, there’s always anecdotal evidence from Hollywood, politics and professional sports to reassure. Among the throngs of perfectly normal only kids are Joe Montana and Tiger Woods, Elizabeth Taylor and Tommy Lee Jones, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Leonardo da Vinci and Robin Williams, Joseph Stalin and Norman Bates…on second thought, you might want to ignore those last two.

Kay Randall

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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