It's Not 'Greedy Breeding': The Only-Child syndrome Is Simply An Outdated Myth
Every now and then my mum repeats a cliché: “Never marry an only-child. They always want things their own way and they don’t know how to act."
Given she’s 82 years old and solidly set in her ways, I mostly ignore her platitudes. But today I responded.
“What are you saying Mum -- that no one should marry my daughter because she doesn’t have siblings?”
It’s been a looming stereotype for generations that only-children don’t know how to act. They are selfish, spoiled, narcissistic, lonely, even weird. It's a cliché so common that “only-child syndrome” was coined in the 19th century to describe these negative personality traits.
I realised just how common it was when I shared an article on social media. I was surprised by the volume of comments I received (both public and private) and even more surprised by just how many only-child parents I knew. We all shared a common thread of frustration over our children being labelled negatively, simply for existing without a sibling.
When I had my daughter at age 43, I was blissfully unaware that an only-child stereotype even existed. I’ve never judged a person for their religion, age or race, so a label based on family structure was not even on my radar.
But I noticed it start to creep into my life. “Just the one?” people would ask.
“You can’t have one child, they will be lonely."
“You can’t have one child because who will grieve with them when you die?”
“Your life is easy with one child compared to mine” (insert mind blown emoji here).
And my personal favourite:
“You can’t have one child, because it’s not a complete family.”
I’ve heard a myriad of them over the years, and I’ve politely smiled through them all, meanwhile thinking, “why is my family structure any of your business?”
The truth is we are happy with our only-child, and given I had her in my 40s at a time when medical experts said it would never happen, I never really gave much thought to having another.
READ MORE: 8 Reasons Why Having Kids Ruined My Life
But there are so many reasons why people have only one child, and often they are not happy stories. Delayed parenting age, like us, seems to be the most popular, but often there are fertility issues, relationship breakdowns or even financial pressures that prevent a brood of more than one.
Nonetheless, I started to question myself. Maybe it’s true. Am I ignorant to the realities of having one child? Am I being selfish? Is it my duty as a parent to ensure I produce a ‘complete’ family that consists of more than one child?
Before I knew it, I found myself in a whirlwind of parenting guilt. I started noticing the family structure of others, wondering how I got this so wrong. I gave serious contemplation to having another child, but by this stage I was 47, and we were unlikely to conceive on our own. We considered adoption and fostering, but the roadblocks in this arena were just too big to get over.
And just as I thought the feelings of failure and the weight of judgement couldn’t get heavier, my four-year-old uttered the words, “I want a sister."
I paused, took a deep breath and decided to have the conversation. I wanted to know what makes a four-year-old say that. It turns out she was playing with two of her friends who both had sisters, and she had told them she also has a sister who lives in Queensland (which was actually her cousin). They challenged her over it because they knew it wasn't true.
As I dug a little deeper, I discovered that what she really wanted was someone to play with. “That’s not a sister honey, that’s a friend,” I said.
I explained why we didn’t have more children and that our triangle family was complete just the way it was. I told her about the many benefits of being an only-child, and I assured her that if she is a good person in life, she will always have people around who love and care for her. Since then, she’s never asked again. She’s a happy and healthy six-year-old girl -- what more could a parent ask for?
Would she take a sibling if one came along? Sure. But is she pining and lonely? Absolutely not. Kids are kids. They will always ask for the things they don’t have out of FOMO, but they also get on with whatever is dealt to them.
As for the only-child syndrome myth -- is my daughter selfish, spoiled, narcissistic or weird? Does she want to be the boss? Does she find it difficult to share?
Yes, to all of those things -- sometimes. But no more than a child with siblings would be, because these are all instinctive behaviours in the early years.
READ MORE: Why I Broke My Daughter's Arm
But she’s also a leader. She’s confident, independent, funny, considerate, intelligent, a master negotiator and the bearer of sunshine to radiate upon anyone who is around her. Our family network is limited but we have a great community of friends who are family.
In modern times, only-child syndrome has become an outdated myth, but the stereotype still exists in many ways despite the number of only child families rising across the globe. In Australia, the total number of one-child families increased by 16 percent to 1.526 million from 2006-2016, making it both the fastest growing and the largest family structure in the country.
In the UK, the only-child revolution is colloquially known as ‘greedy breeding’, with 47 percent of British families only having one child. There is a similar percentage of only-child families in Seattle, Washington.
In the late 1970s China launched a one-child policy to control its exploding population, and for the next three decades about half of all births were “little Emperors”, a generation of only-children. Many studies have since compared this only-child-gen to their peers with siblings, successfully negating the entrenched myths of the past.
Recent studies are further proving that 'only-child syndrome' and other similar stereotypes are flawed. Analysis by educational psychology professor Dr Toni Falbo has shown that only-child characteristics are indistinguishable from first-borns or from people from smaller families. Social psychologist and parenting expert Susan Newman says, "studies have shown that only-children are no more lonely than children with siblings… we live in a totally different world now, in which children are socialised early and not isolated”.
Indeed, the modern family is not what it used to be, so there’s no better time than now to change cultural thought and unlearn these stereotypes. They are outdated, incongruous and disproven views. Only-children are not automatically impaired because they don’t have siblings and our lives as parents are not automatically easier because we have one child.
So, what was my mum’s response over whether my singleton daughter is marriage pariah?
“Of course not,” she said. “I’m just telling you that’s what they used to say.”