February 22, 2019

Is Only-Child Syndrome Real?

“Only children always want to get their way, can’t share and are generally selfish—or so the long-held prejudice goes. According to recent research, however, these claims are overstated. So where did these biases come from?

In A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children published in the 19th century by educator E. W. Bohannon from Clark University in Massachusetts, detailed the results of a questionnaire—a new form of data collection at the time—filled out by 200 test subjects. In it he had asked respondents about the peculiarities of any only children they knew. In 196 cases participants described children without siblings as excessively spoiled.

Bohannon’s colleagues agreed with the results and the idea took hold. The widespread skepticism toward only children was further strengthened by the fact middle-class families were having fewer children and society’s privileged class feared growth of the population’s “inferior strata.” Furthermore, in the early 20th century, some were concerned that growing up without siblings causes children to become hypersensitive: If the parents concentrated all their worries and fears on one offspring, that child would become overly sensitive and eventually a hypochondriac with weak nerves.”

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