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The truth about parenting an only child

Father and son playing with building blocks together
Credit: iStock.com/kohei_hara

When you’re parenting an only child, it’s possible you’ll be familiar with some people assuming your child is spoilt or lacks social skills, but researchers are finding that not having siblings can be a positive.

Some parents may rush into having a second child because they fear their child will be missing out on the sibling bond that other children experience.

Or they may worry that having a single child will mean their child is missing out on skills such as being able to share or having the ability to properly deal with conflict resolution.

“There are many stigmas and stereotypes about only children,” Dr Elizabeth Westrupp, clinical psychologist at Deakin University says.

“They’re often perceived as being more spoilt, and not having as strong social skills when compared to children who grow up with siblings. But the research evidence debunks that – there generally is no difference on measures of social functioning,” Dr Westrupp says.

“If anything, only children tend to show slightly higher results in terms of intelligence and, as adults they’re slightly more likely to be in higher status jobs, more likely to be in education for longer and are more likely to marry partners who are more educated.”

I think it’s important that parents of only children offer opportunities for them to play with other children and to form really close attachments.
Dr Elizabeth Westrupp

A 2018 study, by Southwest University in Chongqing, China, looked at more than 250 university-aged students; 126 students without siblings and 177 with siblings.

In China, the one child policy meant that family planning was dictated by the government for nearly 40 years.

The students taking part in the study were tested in terms of thinking ability and personality. It focused on the topic of whether different family environments influence children's brain structural development and whether behaviour differentially has its neural basis between only-child and non-only-child status.

It was revealed that only children were more flexible in their thinking, and were more creative, though they tended to also show ‘lower agreeableness.’ Only children achieved lower scores in terms of how tolerant they are. 

The students were also asked to complete a creativity test known as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, where they were required to come up with as many original uses for an everyday object.  The study found only children might be better lateral thinkers, as they were able to solve problems more creatively.

Dr Westrupp, who is the parent of an only child herself, says generally speaking, it’s safe to say there aren’t many differences between only children and those who have siblings.

“Of course, there are some differences, such as only children often receive more quality one on one time with their parents; because there’s only one child means there are often more resources to support the only child, in terms of flexibility, time and finances,” Dr Westrupp says.

“One possible negative may be if the parents of an only child are having difficulties such as unemployment, mental health problems or if they are highly stressed, these problems can have a stronger impact on an only child because there are less people in the house for that to be buffered against.

“There’s also some suggestion there might be more pressure from parents on an only child to succeed.

“Research has shown that only children may be slower to develop conflict resolution skills, given that they don’t have siblings to learn and practice these skills with. By the time children are toddlers, it’s important to provide opportunities for developing their social skills by allowing them to play with other children.”  

Another assumption about only children is that they will miss out on significant learning because they aren’t in a position to learn certain skills from their siblings, such as skills of negotiation, or how to get themselves out of trouble. 

Dr Westrupp doesn’t believe this is a major problem.

“The key point is that while there might be some differences in abilities to resolve conflict, I don’t think that means it’s a lifelong difference. There are plenty of opportunities for kids to learn conflict resolution skills once they start primary school,” Dr Westrupp says.

“I think it’s important that parents of only children offer opportunities for them to play with other children and to form really close attachments.

“Having an only child might also mean that parents will have to be more involved as they teach their child social skills, particularly when it comes to sharing toys, books or an adult’s attention.”

Dr Westrupp believes another positive aspect of having an only child is that there is less strain on the parents in many ways.

“Each additional child poses an increased risk for the health of the couple relationship and parents’ mental health,” Dr Westrupp says.

“On the flip side, it may be easier for parents of a single child to leave one child with friends and family and take a break together which is very important for the health of the couple’s relationship, compared to when there are multiple children in a family.

“It’s important for parents of only children not to let the stigma or negative stereotypes about only children influence their parenting or behaviour.”