by Peri Barest, Managing Editor Emeritus
graphic by Emily Zhang
All my stress abated as I slumped into the pinstriped rocking chair, noshing on Jane Ryter’s delicious baked ziti. It was only 9 p.m., and Volume 36 Issue 4 was minutes away from being sent to Seacoast Media Group. We had just set a Volume 36 PR, and in a few days we’d be arriving in Washington, D.C. for the annual National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA) convention. It was in this Roar paradise that, out of the blue, Volume 36 Editor in Chief Jennifer Wang remarked, “You aren’t like most only children,” to me.
Unsure whether this was a compliment or some constructive criticism, I managed a “Thanks?” Volume 36 Editor in Chief Dina Zeldin concurred, while Editor in Chief Carrie Ryter wasn’t sure. The conversation delved deeper into attributes such as narcissism and interpersonal skills but did not come to a definitive decision. While the Roar grind tore us away from the subject a few minutes later, I couldn’t shake the idea that there was only one way to be an only child and that the notion had a negative connotation in and of itself.
I couldn’t help but think of one dinner from NSPA 2018. Our whole staff was squished in the lower level of the only Chicago deep dish pizza place that would take such a large group. When the time came to pay, a certain editor was upset that the restaurant wouldn’t accept separate checks from 30 people, as he didn’t want to wait for everyone to figure out who owed whom how much money. Our waitress, who knew nothing about this person except for his pizza order, commented that he must have been an only child. Everyone, myself included, burst into laughter because he was indeed an only child. In retrospect, however, that waitress, who could have merely commented that he was being inconsiderate and impatient, gave in to the stereotypes about only children. What’s even worse is that her assumption was correct, only further convincing everyone present that those misconceptions are accurate.
The more I thought about and researched it, the more I realized that the stereotypes that only children are egocentric, spoiled, lonely and socially inept are not only false, but their persistence is unproductive and fails to acknowledge the reasons parents decide to cap their families at one child. As the incidence of one-child families increases, it is imperative that these misconceptions be discarded in favor of the notion that it’s the family members themselves, rather than the number of people, that have the largest influence on an individual’s disposition.
Many of these fallacies of “Only Child Syndrome” can be traced to Granville Stanley Hall, an eminent 19th century psychologist who founded the American Psychological Association. Hall’s 1896 study “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children” concluded that “being an only child is a disease in itself.” While thankfully this particular postulation’s credibility diminished with time, the remnants of Hall’s doctrine are alive and well today.
It’s no secret why Hall claimed that only children are selfish and spoiled. I’ve received a slew of attention and presents from my parents and other family members. Simply due to the exorbitant costs of raising a child in the 21st century, money spent on child-related costs in multi-child households can be siphoned for other purposes in a single-child household. Were I one of multiple siblings, I likely would not have attended private elementary and middle school, nor full summers at sleepaway camp. In their 2019 study, however, Dunfer et al. found that the stereotype that only children are narcissistic is “persistent but inaccurate.”
When the study controlled for confounding variables, such as age, parental occupational prestige, parents’ education, location of upbringing and presence of both parents during childhood, narcissism levels in only children changed, demonstrating that the appearance of personality traits often attributed to the number of siblings are instead dependent on other factors.
My mom always liked to joke that my parents’ careers were my siblings growing up. While this certainly could not take the place of a real sibling, it’s true that the hours my parents allocated toward their jobs demonstrated to me that I was not the recipient of their undivided attention. Moreover, my parents instilled in me certain values regarding how to treat others that encouraged me to be conscious of my actions’ impacts on the people around me.
Even still, people often believe that only children are lonely and lack interpersonal skills because they don’t interact with other kids at home. This claim ignores the fact that the majority of social interactions little kids have occur at school and through extracurricular activities and playdates. In their 2013 study, Donna Bobbitt-Zeher and Douglas Downey found that any differences in social skills between children with and without siblings in kindergarten have been eliminated by adolescence.
Regardless of the accuracy of these preconceived notions, they fail to address the reasons parents have only one child, which, in many cases, is hardly a choice. When a family friend of mine, who has an only child, attempted to enroll her son in a preschool, she was met with the accusation that she was a bad parent because, by not having more children, she had deprived her son of a playmate. What this school admissions director didn’t know was that, as a breast cancer survivor, my family friend would have put her own life at risk to conceive another child.
A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of women who have given birth to only one child doubled from 11% to 22% since 1976. With more and more parents working full time and rising costs of living, many parents are making the financial, logistical decision to have one child.
Narrow fertility windows, divorce, postpartum depression and environmental reasons can also drive parents to stop having children. In his book “Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben writes that the current population growth rate is detrimental for the environment and that a shift to a stable population size is inevitable for the long-term survival of our planet.
While none of this is to say that having one child is better than having any other number of children, think twice before making assumptions about people’s families. Next time you see someone with a baby or toddler, don’t ask them when they’re having their next child. Stop jumping to conclusions that parents want to have two or more children, or that only children all act a certain way. Feel free to tell me that I’m spoiled, lazy, lonely, socially awkward or self-centered. But don’t tell me it’s because I’m an only child.