Only Child Syndrome a Myth

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THE GIST

- Adolescents have just as many friends, whether they have siblings or not.

- The average size of the American family is shrinking, and only children are becoming more common.

- The findings should offer comfort to parents, no matter how many kids they decide to have.

Whether they're only children or one of five, teens and pre-teens make plenty of friends, new research concludes.

The new study should offer comfort to parents that their kids will grow up to be just fine, no matter how many they decide to have. It may be a growing concern: With women having kids later in life and pocketbooks tightening against the economic downturn, the number of families with only children has nearly doubled -- to about 20 percent -- since the 1960s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

"People are having smaller families and more children are growing up with fewer siblings," said Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, a sociologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. "What this study suggests is that there really isn't a need to worry for parents who have only children in terms of their social development."

The stereotype of a lonely, spoiled, bossy and maladjusted only child dates back to 1896, when an American psychologist named Granville Stanley Hall did a research paper on the subject. Despite major flaws in his study and fundamental changes to the structure of family life since then (like a shift from isolated farms to urban daycares for 3-month olds), the stereotype has generally stuck around -- even as families have been getting smaller.

To analyze how demographic shifts might be influencing the latest generation of kids, scientists have focused mostly on educational outcomes and test scores. On those measures, studies have shown no advantage for kids with siblings.

In fact, the more brothers and sisters a kid has, the worse he tends to do in school. And kids who are onlies have a slight advantage in their motivation to achieve, said social psychologist Susan Newman, author of "Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only."

More recently, researchers have been looking at how family size might affect social skills -- with some evidence that onlies are at a disadvantage, at least early on. A study of kindergarteners, published in 2004 in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that teachers rated sibling-less children lower on a variety of social skills, including self-control and interpersonal skills.

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