Nineteenth-century psychologists, it seems fair to say, did not always approve of only children. It was G Stanley Hall, the American psychologist, who claimed being a lone child was “a disease in itself”. Soon afterwards, another psychologist called Eugene W Bohannon offered a devastating analysis of the only child. They were “less venturesome” and “oversensitive”; prone to “priggish self-conceit”. An only boy was likely to be “effeminate, both because he associates too little with boys and too much with the mother”. Bohannon did concede that only children were imaginative, though he put this down to “a lack of companionship” and besides, he pointed out, such talents could well be used for “the practice of deception and lying”.

Such stereotypes about spoiled, lonely and peculiar only children have endured for more than a century, despite a wealth of research showing lone children are usually none of those things and often do better in many areas than children with siblings. But despite one-child families becoming far more common, our fascination with their implied unusualness endures. This week, the actor and model Elizabeth Hurley – who has a 16-year-old son, Damian – offered her own take on the issue, saying her one regret was not having more than one child. “I was one of three, a big sister and a little brother to squabble with and to love,” she said in an interview with Grazia. “Damian doesn’t have that. They’re very different, single children, more insular but very at ease with themselves, very self-possessed, focused.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017 55% of lone-parent families had just one dependent child, as did 51% of cohabiting parents. Among married couples, which make up the biggest family type, 40% had a single child. These figures aren’t perfect – they don’t account for older children who have left home, or for families who plan to have more children – but they do show that the trend for smaller families is becoming the norm.

There are obvious reasons for this. Often it isn’t due to a choice to stick with one child – or it doesn’t feel like a choice. Delayed parenthood, fertility problems, relationship breakdowns and financial pressures including housing and childcare costs can all result in a single-child family. But at the same time, evidence is mounting to show a one-child family can be a positive choice for both parents and child.

So-called “only child syndrome” – used to describe a spoilt, odd and “lonely only” – has largely been debunked as a myth. “In China there has been quite a lot of interest in what might be the effects of having a whole nation growing up [in one-child families],” says Claire Hughes, a professor of developmental psychology and the deputy director of the Centre for FamilyResearch at the University of Cambridge. With so much parental and family focus on one child, “the potential for them to be very egocentric is there, but actually, when people have looked, they haven’t really found it”.

Much of the only-child myth-debunking has been done by Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, who has researched only children since the 1970s. In one meta-analysis of studies, with Denise Polit, the pair found that “across all developmental outcomes, only children were indistinguishable from firstborns and people from small families” and did better than children from large families.

As for being awkward and antisocial, one study from 2011 found that while adults who had been only children engaged in fewer social activities with relatives (which may possibly be explained by having fewer relatives to begin with), they found no difference in the number of social engagements with others, such as friends and colleagues. A survey of more than 2,500 Spanish teenagers found only children experienced higher rates of peer victimisation, but Hughes points out this may be affected by their perception of victimisation: “To some extent, siblings really teach you how to take the rough with the smooth.” A study last year, by Southwest University in Chongqing, China, on more than 250 college-aged students, suggested only children were more flexible in their thinking, and therefore more creative, though showed “lower agreeableness”.

The clinical psychologist Linda Blair, author of the book Birth Order, says there can be huge benefits to this family structure, as parents can focus all their time and energy on an only child, “and also continue to have your own life. That means, in terms of the child’s point of view, you make growing up look pretty interesting.” In previous generations, being an only child “didn’t used to be so good for two reasons. One was that parents usually couldn’t have another child – it wasn’t because they chose not to – and the problem was that then they overprotected the child. The other reason was only children were in the vast minority, so they often felt bullied and left out. But nowadays, this is a positive choice for a lot of parents so the kid feels not that unusual and also they don’t feel overprotected, they just feel valued.”

There are also downsides, Blair says. “One is that, even with the best efforts of parents to get their child to spend lots of time with kids their own age, they often feel a little bit awkward.” This is partly because these encounters usually happen in a supervised setting – nursery, or school, for instance. “So you don’t get the ease of street smarts that kids learn when they have siblings – not to get your Lego knocked over, not to get beaten up.” Children with siblings “learn to read other kids more quickly and easily. It still comes with single children, but it’s just not quite the same.” Blair advises going on holidays with other families with children of similar ages: “That’s the nearest you’ll get to a situation like siblings.”

Another problem, she says, is that an only child’s home life, ruled by adults, will usually be ordered and relatively calm. “If I see an issue of control, a problem of really being upset when things go wrong, that’s often [displayed by] an only child because they are used to things not being too chaotic. The thing you do about that is be a little bit easy and slack and let things get a little chaotic as parents. Allow a little bit of chaos, just as would happen if you had three or four kids.” But she adds that she doesn’t think there are any serious problems at all in being an only child.

What may be great for a young child or teenager – having more resources, more attention – doesn’t necessarily hold true when that child is an adult, dealing with ageing parents and, eventually, being alone, with nobody who remembers the idiosyncrasies of your family or who shared your childhood. Although this assumes that most people have a reasonable relationship with their adult siblings. For every only child who remembers a lonely childhood there will be others who were traumatised by a bullying brother or sister.

Hughes says it is not the number of siblings that is important, but the quality of the relationships. “There is no guarantee if you had a second child that your children are going to get on beautifully. I personally think that having a sibling is an amazing thing, but I wouldn’t want people who have one child, and don’t think they’re going to be able to have a second, to feel their child is inevitably going to lose out.”

As for the perfect family size, says Blair, there is no such thing. “The perfect family, if you want the most psychologically well-adjusted children, is the number of children you have, because if you love them, they will be happy.”

By: Elizabeth Hurley from The Guardian

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