Only Children and Other Parenting Ideas the Media Love

The myth: Only children are selfish, spoiled and maladjusted.

At least that's the parenting myth supposedly debunked by TIME Magazine with help of a small boy with a knowing smile named Bryar. No, not Bryan as I first read. B-R-A-Y-A-R. The text above his strawberry blond head on the July 19th cover tells us he and other children without brothers and sisters, contrary to the popular belief, are "just fine". In fact we go on to learn they're darn smart and successful.

The cover story makes a passable attempt at refuting the stereotype, at least the bad parts - onlies are selfish, socially-inept, spoiled. Turns out, much of the so-called evidence of The Misfit Only comes from antiquated work, most famously G. Stanley Hall's 1896 study -"Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children".  A historical gem not to be taken too seriously these days in light of our infinitely tighter methodologies and analyses. Though he founded the American Psychological Association and hung with Freud and Jung, G also harbored a strong authoritarian streak tossed with equal parts racism, elitism and religiosity - thought America was headed straight down the crapper with all the talk of individual freedoms and dignity. Children and no doubt most adults were savages who'd stay out of prison not to mention hell only through a generous use of the rod. Children without siblings? Somewhere slightly above the devil's spawn. Not that G had any particular research biases...

Nor do any other researchers, hmmm, like those studying only children (my two cents):

No one has done more to disprove Hall's stereotype (I bet!!!) than Toni Falbo*, a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. An only child herself and the mother of one (you don't say! how rare in academia, uh, not!), Falbo began investigating the only-child experience in the 1970s, both in the U.S. and in China (and what a great control pool there in China - how many kids with siblings? Chinese onlies compared to who?), drawing on the experience of tens of thousands of subjects. Twenty-five years ago (ancient research, ancient methods), she and colleague Denise Polit conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies (conducted even earlier!!!!) of only children from 1925 onward (including G. Stanley's Victorian gem) that considered developmental outcomes of adjustment, character, sociability, achievement and intelligence. Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren't measurably different from other kids — except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement (ahem,correlational data, not always well controlled).
So there is an upside to no siblings. Only children don't have to share any parental resources and supposedly because of this bounty go on to higher SAT scores, college graduation rates, and self-esteem.

So we can cross out the downsides of singledom and keep the bonuses according to Dr. Falbo.

But like so much of the birth order, first born, sibling myth, parental happiness-type studies - in addition to a lot of other parenting research frankly - I wonder about the exact relationships between the predictor and all the outcomes. I'm not completely convinced the full concentration of parental resources (and expectations) actually make kids smarter etc. 

Could there be something about people who have one kid that explains the smart, self-confident singletons? I don't know, maybe, maybe not.  The brainy boost apparently transcends socio-economic and ethnic lines. Onlies are just plain smarter and more successful academically. But still I'm left wondering if researchers have adequately controlled for parental IQ (and other possible confounds).  Has anyone actually measured parent IQ and not education? If it's like the breastfeeding literature, then no.   

As for the meta-analysis, I'm not completely comfortable with the early stuff, the 1960's let well enough alone the nineteenth century. We can't completely ignore pre-1970' s research as it comes with much less scientific rigor than later decades. On top of that concern, I can't see much use of comparing singletons coming of age today to those born before the advent of modern birth control, namely The Pill.  Today, as TIME points out, many parents choose to have just one child.  Are those kids different than the ones whose parents wanted more than one? In other words, those who through fertility, divorce, illness, etc. simply couldn't have another.  I'm curious.   So the data pre-Pill probably didn't control for much of anything.  That's just how it was.  The data since then is probably much better but we have the confound of parents who now choose to have just one kid and I'm not at all sure from the article if any research has demystified these issues. 

The article also wades into the parental happiness pool, the idea that each kid reduces a parent's satisfaction by a few percentage points, the first baby, even more, or so some research shows (see Jennifer Senior's recent NY Magazine article, No Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting).  Although a recent article in the Wall Street Journal does a good job of disputing it (The Breeder's Cup).  Basically, it all depends on how you measure it, define it, etc.   But true or not, nuanced or not, the idea is presented as evidence that having only one child has it's upside for parents too - presented without any critical evaluation. 
Of course if you read the article and you can also find photos of Famous Onlies...

Condie Rice, Franklin Roosevelt, Lance Armstrong, Elvis Presley. 

Honestly, who is convinced by that roll call of celebrities? Other than cocktail conversation at a really slow party or a trivia challenge, how is it important that Elvis had no brothers or sisters (and how did he turn out)? It's called filler and it captures our attention, short-circuiting our more rational trains of thoughts.  Something we'll be treated to more often in our new media. 

*The Onlies expert featured in TIME, Dr. Falbo, looks to have focused almost entirely in the past couple decades on children in China, Korea, and most recently, Guatemala or on foreign-born children now living in the U.S.  The grand majority of her work the past twenty years, thus, comes from outside the U.S.  So it's fair to ask how relevant her evidence and argument are to children here in the US. 

It sounds like I'm nit-picking and I am.  If the media used a moderately more critical lens to critique the evidence then I'd be left wandering YouTube, eating Cheetos (the all-natural ones, mind you) and wondering what to do with my free time.


TherExtras said...

I think you misnomer your analysis by calling it nit-picking, Polly.

Honestly, not I - the list of celebs makes no point at all about being an only child.

Among all the possible and necessary comparisons for meaningful data would be to compare only children with firstborns.

'The media' needs more than moderate improvement.


Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

So it's not just me wondering how this passes as quality content in a national magazine!

momtothree said...

I think it depends on a lot other factors too. There are all kinds of different parents with only children, to lump them all together doesn't seem right.

Becoming Supermommy said...

Just a throw away addition...
Elvis Presley wasn't your typical only child. He was a surviving twin. The literature regarding the psychological effects of being a single twin is fascinating, and I think completely removes him from the category of being a true only child.

How many others of those "Famous Onlies" might be disqualified based on similar particulars?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Howdy, Becoming Supermommy! Are you sure you're not there yet? Okay, so now I'm intrigued by Elvis' twin. Was he or she a stillborn? Fraternal or identical - can you imagine an exact (give or take some DNA) replica of Elvis?

I'm not up on the twin lit but I know studies come out all the time about the particular prenatal environment, and I think there are some interesting findings, no?

So I'm not sure how a vestigal twin or more so, I'd imagine a stillborn one influences a person's life, but it's worth asking for sure.