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Cultural Perspectives of the Only Child

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I was recently invited to China to consult with an adolescent social service agency. China’s one child policy was introduced more than a decade ago, and many of those only children are now adolescent. Those running the agency told me that many of these now adolescent singletons are presenting a variety of social and behavioral problems. They wanted me to give workshops for counselors dealing with these young people. While I really wanted to give the workshops, my schedule was such that I could not participate in the program. The China invitation, however, did raise the issue of the psychological results of being an “only” child.

It is important to say, from the outset, that while the email from China, generated this blog, the problems of Chinese only children should not be taken as true for all only young people. In China, having an only child is a matter of social policy and goes against the Chinese cultural tradition of having many children, especially boys. Because having an only child is a matter of social regulation, not of parental choice, the single child becomes very precious and special, and the potential for spoiling and over protection is very great.

In Western and other Asian countries, however, having a single child is a personal decision and is often a compromise between the desire to have children and the desire to have a life style that is only possible without children. Because parental motivations and attitudes for having an only child are complex, it is not surprising that there is little consensus as to the consequences of being an only child. There is some evidence that birth order does play a role in the developing child’s personality. The oldest child does seem to be the most goal oriented and driven child in the family. Most astronauts, and surgeons, for example, are first likely to be first-borns. Last-borns tend to be more social and outgoing while middle children tend to be the most rebellious. Within this framework, the only child is said to have some of the achievement orientation of the oldest child and the social self-confidence and skills of the youngest. Of course these effects are different depending upon the sex of siblings and the age separation between them.

It was psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, a Freudian disciple, who first suggested the birth order dynamism. Adler later rejected Freud’s sexual doctrine and proposed his own theory of the “inferiority complex” as the basic dynamic of personality. With regards to birth order, he suggested that only children would be “spoiled,” and thus given a “superiority” complex. Adler was of course, writing in the early twentieth century, when most children were reared at home. The situation is much altered today, when perhaps the majority of young children are cared for, full or part time, outside of the home. In effect children in child care centers have many of the benefits (as well as the negatives) of growing up in a large family.

Accordingly, the general consensus today is that only children fare no worse or better than children from multi-child families. There is now a web site dedicated to only children and many participants on the site offer their own case histories as evidence that they were not harmed by being an only child. The case of the only child both here and in China, are good examples of how both culture and society can set the context for particular child rearing attitudes and practices.

By Professor David Elkind 

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