The nature vs. nurture question comes up frequently in education and parenting circles. By most estimates, it’s about 50-50. In other words, 50% of who you are comes from genetics and the other 50% is environmental. That allows parents and educators plenty of influence. So what does that imply for stereotypes about the “selfish only child”, the “responsible first child” or the “lazy youngest child”and the value of sibling relationships?
Parenting and psychology expert Dr. Susan Newman provides us the research behind the stereotypes. She explains what parents can proactively do to avoid the stereotype trap so “onlies” have the value of sibling relationships without the siblings.
What is the Stereotype?
If you are the parent of one child, it’s hard not to think about only child stereotypes and hope that none of them will apply to your child. To that end, you try to teach your child not to be selfish or bossy or to insist on having everything his own way. Such behavior is not only worrisome in its own right, but also can affect his future relationships and educational success.
To compound your own concern, friends, relatives, even strangers in the park, may tell you in assorted ways that your only child needs a sibling relationship. The idea that children need siblings to become empathetic—to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, to be thoughtful or to share—by way of example is as mythical as the only child stereotypes that still linger in our society.
Yes, children may learn from sibling relationships. But it is also true that what a child learns and how she fares has more to do with parenting than the number of siblings she does or doesn’t have.
8 Ways Parents Can Help Only Children (and all children) Thrive without Sibling Relationships
As a parent you can foster positive attitudes and be invaluable in teaching your child key life lessons that are important for getting along with peers. You can model how to be a genuine caring person, regardless if you have an only child or she’s one of six.
From very young ages, here are actions parents can take that will benefit a child’s ability to succeed socially and academically:
- Socialize your only child early. Set up play dates to insure interaction with peers.
- In disputes with friends, ask him how he would feel if he were the “injured” party?
- Assign age-appropriate chores and don’t step in—even if it seems easier to do the chores yourself.
- Don’t allow your child to win every game you play together. That goes a long way in understanding competition—the art of losing gracefully and playing fair.
- Divide the last piece of pie; share the last scoop of mashed potatoes. Simple, but effective.
- Model empathy in your own interactions with family and friends.
- Involve your child in volunteer activities with you or on her own when old enough.
- Take your work or job seriously to underscore the importance of his work—school.
The Firstborn and Only-Child Edge
As the sole recipient of parents’ time, attention and resources, an only child’s verbal skills and experiences will enhance his education. The Dilution Theory is a viable explanation for the disparity between firstborns and younger siblings. Presenting to the American Sociological Association, Ohio State researchers explained it this way: “Social science research investigating the consequences of siblings has been dominated by resource-dilution arguments. The dilution perspective posits that parental resources are finite and that siblings end up reducing the amount of time, attention, and financial resources any one child can receive.
“Siblings detract from child development; the argument goes, by spreading parental attention more thinly across a broader group of children. From this perspective, siblings are primarily competitors rather than providers of resources. It follows that resource-dilution proponents are skeptical of the notion that siblings promote child development.”
In her study, “Sibling Configurations, Educational Aspiration and Attainment,” Feifei Bu of Essex University found that “firstborn children (whether male or female) have higher aspirations and that these aspirations play a significant role in determining later levels of attainment.”
Although this phenomenon has long been observed, there was little conclusive data on why only children and firstborns seem to possess such an advantage. Bu’s new study is the latest among those attempting to unravel the firstborn edge, particularly with regard to academic success and educational aspirations. The study followed 1,503 sibling groups and 3,532 individuals.
Accounting for parents’ education and professional status, Bu found that the probability of attending further education for firstborns is 16 percent higher than for their younger siblings. Firstborn children were 7 percent more likely to aspire to complete their higher education than younger siblings.
For better or worse, firstborns temporarily or permanently have no sibling to potentially affect their development. They will get more parental time and a bigger share of the economic pie out of the gate. These firstborn and only-child assets cannot be offset by questionable early multi-sibling fraternization pluses.
Turns out only children are in no way disadvantaged. Quite the opposite; being the only child in the family is a circumstance in which a child can ultimately thrive —and grow up to be an empathetic individual.
Dr. Susan Newman specializes in parenting and family issues and has been studying only child families for more than two decades. She blogs for Psychology Today and has written two books on this topic, The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide and Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only.