What adjectives come to mind when describing an only child? Spoiled, selfish, entitled, bratty? Only children tend to get a bad rep. When people think of only children, someone like Veruca Salt from Willy Wanka & the Chocolate Factory comes to mind. But are only children all that bad? Let’s remember that humble Charlie from the same story was also an only child.
So what does it really mean to be an only child? According to science, there are some stereotypes that hold true. But only children also surpass children with siblings in other positive attributes. A new study shows that being an only child actually affects the way a child’s brain develops.
The new study has come out of Southwest University in Chongqing, China. To be fair, the pool of participants was pretty small. The researchers studied around 250 university-aged students, about half of whom were only-children. The students’ brains were scanned while they completed tests measuring their creativity, intelligence and personality. The study found that there are neural differences between only children and children raised with siblings.
The results found that only children scored higher on the tests of creativity but scored lower on “agreeable personality traits.” The researchers noted that other tests found that only children tended to show higher levels of intelligence and creativity, and often did better in school. But being raised as an only child was also associated with higher levels in what the researchers called “undesirable” personality traits, like selfishness, dependency and being socially inept. But this particular study was the first to show evidence that brain function between only children and children with siblings was different.
The neural tests showed that the only children who displayed higher levels of creativity had more gray matter in their parietal lobe. This is the part of the brain associated with imagination. The only children who were lacking in “agreeable personality traits” showed less gray matter in their medial prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain associated with thinking about the self in relation to others.
The study’s findings are interesting and may carry weight world-wide, but they especially have significance in China. That is because China has a disproportionate amount of only children due to the one-child policy that was introduced in 1979. The policy was introduced because the Chinese population grew an astounding 75 percent from 1949 to 1976. However, with an average per capita income was around $48. Families simply did not have enough money to raise multiple children. So the policy was installed.
While the policy may have worked well from an economic standpoint, it has had lasting social repercussions. Because of the Chinese traditional beliefs on sons, millions of girls were selectively aborted. Overall, there were over 330 million abortions performed in the country. Because of this, there are 32 million more marriage-age men in China than there are women. This means a lot more bachelors will be less likely to pass on their genes.
The Chinese government got rid of the policy in 2015, and now allow couples to have two children. However, fines and penalties still apply if the couple decides to have more than two children. While the one-child policy is now gone, its 36 years of being in place has led to generations of what many Chinese parents and teachers believe to be spoiled brats.
The Chinese have a name for its generations of only children. They refer to them as the xiao huangdi, or "little emperor." It is a cultural phenomenon that has resulted directly because of the one-child policy. These little emperors have been referred to as “self-centered, narrow-minded, and incapable of accepting criticism.”
"Kids these days are spoiled rotten. They have no social skills. They expect instant gratification. They're attended to hand and foot by adults so protective that if the child as much as stumbles, the whole family will curse the ground,” a kindergarten director told Fortune magazine.
These little-emperors are pretty disliked in China. Their only child status can actually affect what kind of job they are able to get. Some employers will not hire “single children” due to the little emperor stigma. They may have good reason why. Another study done of Chinese only children found that the little emperors were indeed pretty selfish.
The study was conducted by Australian researchers of 421 adults in China. The participants were split into two categories; those born before the one-child policy was put into place, and those born after. So the oldest participants were 37 while the youngest were 29. They were asked to play four social-experiment games. In the dictator game the participants were given $30 and allowed to give any amount, or none of it away to an anonymous partner. In the trust game the first participant can send no money or some money away to another anonymous partner and then the partner has the option to send some back. In the risk game, the participants could wager some of their money on a coin flip, either tripling their bet or leaving them with nothing. In the competition game, participants have to answer a series of mathematical exercises. They have the option of being paid a small amount every time they answer a question correctly, or they could choose to compete with another player and get paid 10 times that amount. But if they lose against the other player, they get nothing.
In the first two tasks, those born after the one-child policy behaved narcissistically. They gave less money and gave back less money in both experiments. The results of the other two were a bit more complicated. The one-child group were less competitive in the math exercise game, with 44 percent choosing to compete versus the 51.8 percent of the participants born before the policy. They also were less likely to take risks in the coin flip. The researchers found that these were signs that the only children were more pessimistic than those born before the policy.
Only children in China are a unique breed. Because they are born in an only-child culture, they tend to suffer more greatly for it than say only children in the United States. Only children in the United States grow up around and associate more with children who were raised in multi-children households. In his book The Sibling Effect, Jeffrey Kluger cited studies about only children in the United States that found these children have several desirable characteristics. Only children in the United States outperformed children with siblings in terms of vocabulary, sense of humor, focus, academic performance, and even the ability to get along with others.
Other studies found that only children have slightly higher self-esteem than their peers with siblings.
“Not to say they have very high self-esteem, but, on average they score a little higher in a statistically significant way, but that might be one point out of 20; so it's not a huge difference. It's enough to be statistically significant,” said Dr. Toni Falbo, a leading researcher on only children.
Their self-confidence may have something to do with their association with adults. According to Dr. Carl Pickhardt, a child therapist, only children grow up associating adults as their peers and tend to be more comfortable around them and talking to adult authorities.
Only children are like “super-firstborn” children. So firstborn children tend to have toned-down only children-like qualities. Like only-children, firstborns tend to associate their parents as their peers. They take on an adult persona. They tend to be achievers and act a bit more cautious like only children do.
Middle children are often described as having the greatest social intelligence. They tend to be peacemakers and are very good at being fair and sharing, probably because they’ve been sandwiched between two other siblings their whole lives. They also tend to have lots of friends.
The youngest children have some traits in common with only children in that they can be self-centered and entitled. They also tend to be more outgoing and attention seekers probably because they were quick to get attention from their parents and their older siblings growing up. This may be why many youngest children tend to go into the entertainment business.
Do you think that the studies on only children accurately describes their personality? People usually just associate only children with negative characteristics, but it may be surprising to discover that they outperform children with siblings on many fronts. They are still a bit spoiled, so that stereotype still holds true.