Birth Order
November 12, 2004 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Only Children have a different set of experiences than those with siblings. This take on a privileged young New Yorker made me reflect on my own only upbringing. On the one hand, it seems intuitively correct that birth order contributes to life experience, but it actually looks like a pretty soft science, akin to astrology. Parenting advice is available, but on a folk wisdom level. Will this subject go away in time, like the old view of left handedness as a sign of potential deviance? What impressions does the girl in the article make?
posted by rainbaby (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Only children = strange. Check out that look in their eyes when you say no to them.
posted by jon_kill at 11:25 AM on November 12, 2004

As an only child (medical reasons, not by choice) I can say that the impression she makes is vaguely creepy. But then it is a modern New York City situation.

My experience, and this is, as you say, soft science, is that "onlies" tend to be comfortable around adults (since they spend more time with them), somewhat self-centered (not surprising, is it?) and spoiled. Language skills, part of that comfort around adults, usually are more advanced.

That said, it is lonely at times. I still find myself talking to myself, often out loud without realizing it. I'm as happy to spend time alone as I am to be with others. When I was young, it was a pain not having siblings because then there was no one to blame the various broken/lost/etc. things in the house on but me. I was quite adept at playing board games by myself. It may have been lonely, but it wasn't sad, despite what it might have looked like for kid to be playing chess by himself.

Odd coincidence: My wife comes from a family of seven. She and everyone else who has gotten married in her family have married only children. Not sure what to make of that.
posted by tommasz at 11:31 AM on November 12, 2004

For starters, the lifestyle of yuppie Manhattanites really shouldn't be generalized to the population at large. I thought we all learned this last Tuesday.

I thought it was also interesting that the author repeatedly mentioned that most studies show very little difference in the outcome of being an only child to being a first-born in a larger family, but kept dismissing the research for observations like the one about "Chandler" from "Friends" or the gang from "Seinfeld".

So here, I'll have to cop to having just one child (and due to wife's medical reasons, she'll be an only) and admit that I *might* be a bit defensive on the "parents fuck up their children" score.

It was an interesting read, but I really think it doesn't generalize well. My kid's only 3 years old, so check with me in ten years and I'll let you know if it turned out to be true.
posted by briank at 11:38 AM on November 12, 2004

I only got one; he's working out pretty well so far (11 years). I can't see how people deal with many more than one at a time.

In his 1998 book Maybe One, Bill McKibben says that all the stereotypical stuff about only children stems from one improperly done study from over 100 years ago, which keeps getting cited over and over.

From a review of the book:
Don't we all know that an only child is a lonely child? Haven't we known for generations that growing up as a pampered, pressured singleton makes you conceited and unsociable?

That's what many believe, but McKibben says it has no basis in reality. It was a mistake made in the 1890s by a wrongheaded American psychologist, and endlessly repeated as gospel. Today, nothing in social science supports it. The relevant studies show that singletons tend to score higher than others in achievement, motivation and personal adjustment. No other differences appear.

posted by LeLiLo at 11:57 AM on November 12, 2004

I didn't realize I was 'lonely' as an only child until I got to college. With nothing to compare it to, I had no reason to feel that way. I grew up in a semi-rural environment and my beagle was my best friend. I have always done much better with people older than myself, so the adults thing seems to ring true. As for spoiled, I was probably spoiled with attention, but not really with material things.

If I ever reproduce, I'm going to try to have at least two. Most other onlies I know have said the same thing.

there was no one to blame the various broken/lost/etc. things in the house on but me

Damn right. I hated that.
posted by sciurus at 12:02 PM on November 12, 2004

For starters, the lifestyle of yuppie Manhattanites really shouldn't be generalized to the population at large. I thought we all learned this last Tuesday.


Seriously, stuff like this just gets on my nerves:
Her favorite restaurants are Il Cantinori and Lure Fishbar: "I like the architecture there—I mean, the interior," she says. "It's like a boat. I like it better than Balthazar—they make everything such a big deal. You buy a little salad and it's really expensive and they say it has this sppppecial Itttttalian drrrressing."

Yeah. This is obviously directly related to the fact that she's an only child.

As an only child from a working class family in rural Northern California, I can say that the only thing which rang a bell was the "lack of siblings" things. All of these concerns seem much more related to the fact that they're upper class New Yorkers than to their status as only children.

"When I tried to transfer to boarding school in eleventh grade because I disliked my school so much, my dad sent me to a shrink to make sure that I wasn't trying to run away from him," says Joanna Bernstein, 31. "That's what being an only child is."


I was precocious, sure, and I'm eccentric as all hell, but I was a weird baby and it hasn't leveled out since. That said, I met a kid a couple years ago who was exactly like me at that age, and he was the second oldest of four.
posted by Coda at 12:04 PM on November 12, 2004

As a 30-year old only child I have to chime in to say that being an only child as your parents grow older (mine are going to be 60 soon) is a sad affair. I've moved 300 miles from them on top of that. I love my folks very very much, but havinga sib to help and to talk to and lean on some days would make my familial situation a lot less meloncholy. That said, my wife has one sister who seems to do her best to make everyone's life tougher, so I guess the grass is always greener.

The only children that I know all had a very hard time socializing until they went to college, at which point things took off dramatically. I didn't understand the kids around me in public high school at all and was (in the social context) a miserable person until I got out of there. When I was out of that situation and on my own I really began to intensely enjoy life. I have a family with one (soon to be two) children now, and strangely enough I find that I miss the aloneness that I had as a child.
posted by n9 at 12:06 PM on November 12, 2004

n9, you need to have a place in the house that you can call your own. We have a small house, so my space is just a corner of the family room, but it's mine. My wife and kids have long since realized that I need my space sometimes, so it works for us. If we were wealthy, I'd have a workshop like Norm Abrams does on New Yankee Workshop, but it would be a music studio instead.
posted by tommasz at 12:16 PM on November 12, 2004

soft science.. as opposed to the hard science of psychology?
posted by stbalbach at 12:18 PM on November 12, 2004

My son's best friend is an only. There are definitely differences between the two boys, but I wouldn't judge those differences as good or bad. A lot of the supposed "detriments" to being an only child can be alleviated through regular peer group play.

We had two kids for reasons like what n9 stated. Two kids levels the playing field a bit and they each have a close family member that isn't a parent. *knocks wood*
posted by whatnot at 12:19 PM on November 12, 2004

Odd coincidence: My wife comes from a family of seven. She and everyone else who has gotten married in her family have married only children. Not sure what to make of that.

Each is looking for what they did not have and longed for.

Personally, I am third of five. I am comfortable living in small spaces and maximizing the bits of attention I do receive. I am also somewhat selfish about the things I do have, and protect them fiercely. A single mother and five children leads one to be efficient in the love and possession they do recieve.

It is a 'soft science', most of those dealing with the behaviour of the flesh must be so. Otherwise they lead to silliness like 'eugenics'.
posted by wah at 12:47 PM on November 12, 2004

I'm an only too. There are great things about it, and not so great things. I think I was very fortunate to have good, conscious parents. I do think there's something to birth order. Almost all of my friends through my life have been first borns and my husband is first born.

On the good side, I do well with people of all ages. One of my close friends was in her 50's (20 yrs' older than I) and when an old high school friend met my older friend for the first time, she was floored by the age difference. Despite the fact I'd written lots of letters talking about the older friend, I'd never mentioned her age.

I deal with authority figures differently than most people I know. Not disrespectfully, but on a more even footing--judge, boss, doctor doesn't mean you're special. Comes in handy when talking salary, etc.

I love spending time alone. I need time alone.

Unlike what the article describes, because I spent a lot of time observing classmates, I tended to be overly sensitive to other's feelings.

Things that can be hard for me as an only include dealing with disappointment/changes in plans/accidents/mistakes. I think not having another sibling there to screw things up/steal things/break things makes it harder for me to deal with things going wrong. However, when I realized this about myself, I think the extreme self-awareness/naval-gazing I developed as an only helped me modify my response to those disruptions.

As an adult, I don't have someone to help me remember things from my childhood from a child's point of view.

Taking care of my parents will be solely my responsibility. The good side of that is there won't be a sibling to resent for not doing their share.

I don't like working in groups at all. And when I have to, I end up doing much of the work because other people are too inefficient being worried about what's fair, blah, blah, blah.
posted by lobakgo at 1:04 PM on November 12, 2004 [1 favorite]

I started out thinking I was the center of the universe. Then I had to learn to relate to the other kids at school. I met the kids in college who were smarter and more talented than I am. I started co-habitating and was forced to stop calling things "mine" and start calling them "ours." Not to mention discovering all those people out in the world who are already more sucessful than I am at my age. Nevertheless, I still like to pick the, I mean the restaurant.

A lot of the conventional wisdom about onlies is true; still, there's a wide variety of experience among us. I often felt lonely and socially awkward, but I never had trouble making friends. I realize now that everyone felt awkward on the first day of kindergarten, or when trying to get along in middle school. Being an only child just gave me more time to obsess about it.
posted by junkbox at 1:08 PM on November 12, 2004

junkbox - that's what I was wondering, essentially. Am I a smart, difficult, introverted egomaniac who reads because I grew up in the house alone, or am I just looking for a magical explanation of why I am the way I am? I suppose it's unknowable. I found the original article interesting (in a through NY glasses kind of way), and was surprised by the kinds of things I found on a quick search on the subject. I expected more statistics or scholarly studies to pop up.
posted by rainbaby at 1:20 PM on November 12, 2004

My boyfriend's an only, I'm an oldest out of two who's often mistaken for an only (my sister is mistaken for an only, too - we're both creative, outgoing, independent girls who don't take crap from anyone). Unlike some of the other only-kid posters on here, my boyfriend and I have discussed the "kids" question and found ourselves in agreement that one was plenty, and maybe two if there was good reason.

If I do have a second child, it would be at least 6 or 7 years after the first (the benefit of doing the kid thing early - I'm thinking 5 or 6 years from now, when I'm in my mid 20's - is that you can space them out instead of popping them out all in a row - not to mention a lower risk of birth defects and higher quality eggs in general), and only if the first child wanted a sibling and could understand what that entailed: that a younger sibling is not "instant playmate, just add water," or a pet - common misconceptions among youngish children. If I really felt a sibling would add to the family situation, then that'd be a choice I could understand making - but I actually view it as fairly unlikely.

My sister and I have both agreed, without meaning offense to the other, that we'd each have rather been an only child. We wanted the extra attention and all. Of course, now we tend to lavish the attention on each other, so I guess it all evens out in the end.
posted by u.n. owen at 1:32 PM on November 12, 2004

rainbaby, it certainly seems all anecdotal, doesn't it? I can't imagine having grown up any other way than I did but I can say if it was because I'm only child or for some other reason. I have the traits you mention but I can easily say in my case that they're the results of heredity and environment rather than birth order.
posted by tommasz at 1:34 PM on November 12, 2004

Could it be that smart, introverted, egomaniacal parents (who are more likely to breed more smart introverted egomaniacs) actually don't want a bazillion little feet in the house?
posted by u.n. owen at 1:47 PM on November 12, 2004

I'm an only too, with pretty much the opposite growing-up environment of this particular extremely privileged girl; my parents divorced when I was 4 and I grew up with mom in pretty much abject poverty, first in what are now "the projects" near Newark NJ and then in very very rural Downeast Maine. I was alone a lot as a kid with not much of a nurturing home life (it turned violently abusive with stepdad #2 starting in middle school). I didn't really understand it as being lonely until looking back at it much later. At the time it was just the way things were. Heh, and I too got pretty good at playing board and card games by myself.

I had a lot of problems socializing well through high school and college, my social life didn't take off until my 20s when I was in rock bands. I don't do that anymore, and I find myself socially back to where I was in high school - the band scene was sort of an "artificial" social life where I fit in for a while, but my social skills didn't really develop that well because of it.

There are a lot of strange gaps in my personality development that I struggle with constantly, but I think they are much more due to absent parenting and abuse than to being an only. I guess if I'd had an older sibling to lean on, or a younger sibling to protect, things might have been different. As it is, these personality gaps really sabotage my success in most things I do, and I have a lot of difficulty working around them.

I'd definitely have to call myself a smart, introverted egomaniac though. And I have to echo the thoughts about being more comfortable with adults and having advanced language skills and overall precociousness, that's definitely my experience. People with larger families do seem to me to get along a lot better in the general social life than I do.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:18 PM on November 12, 2004

Zoogleplex, what you describe is what finally got me thinking having more than one kid could be good. Not specifically abuse, but that if anything went wrong--parent dies, divorce, even just general strife--if there are two siblings they at least have each other.
posted by lobakgo at 2:46 PM on November 12, 2004

I'm an only child of an only child. I promptly had three after I married.

I'd have been better off to have siblings. Nothing like being the sole focus of an obsessed mom's eye....
posted by konolia at 2:50 PM on November 12, 2004

No discussion of only children is really complete without mention of China's Little Emperors.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:01 PM on November 12, 2004

Hands up as an only child too. Unlike my friends who grew up in large families, I don't get bored easily and can entertain myself when no one else is around. I was addicted to books, I occasionally have difficulties talking to new people and I need Me Time every day or else I get irritable. I got mostly everything I wanted - dancing lessons, ice-skating lessons, piano lessons, a piano, a car. My parents were 40 when they had me and so could afford to spend money on things I wanted. I never thought of it as "spoilt", and I don't demand things from others today. I never got along with my parents when I was growing up (I was sure I believed they were out to thwart everything I did), but I am so close to them now. And yes, I am grateful to them for everything they gave me.

I tried to blame a phone bill on my dad once when I was about 8, even though I knew full well it was me and dad never used the phone anyway. It was worth a shot, and my brain fully expected mum to investigate my claims once I'd made them. It didn't work.

And like others here, I want more than one child myself.
posted by chronic sublime at 3:30 PM on November 12, 2004

I'd also like to point out that there's a big difference between a general observation about how sibling order affects personality, and some kind of rigorous theory that holds that a premise must almost always be true. I think a lot of assertions about sibling order are really just observations, but are judged as theories.

I'm an older brother, and my only sister is just 360 days younger than I am. Having grown up with a tremendously feisty and independent sibling--who was _definitely_ making sure she got everything I got, because in her eyes we were basically the same age--I've always been amazed at how easy it is for me to recognize, and deal with, similar women. I grew up with one, I dated (a different) one, I lived with (yet another) one, and I ended up marrying (yet another) one. More than once, a co-worker or a friend I'm just getting to know has said something, and I've been able to say "You have _got_ to be the younger sister to an older brother", correctly, without knowing their family circumstances.

That doesn't mean I'm psychic, or especially intuitive, or that there's some kind of stereotype. It just means that being a younger sister to a slightly older brother means that you probably grow up reacting to very specific circumstances, and many people are going to end up with similar traits. That broad observation probably fails as often as it is accurate, but that doesn't mean that once in a while, it's _very_ easy to spot.
posted by LairBob at 5:08 PM on November 12, 2004

When I read the piece in "New York" what struck me was what strange birds the parents were -- people who didn't so much choose to have only one child as who felt they had no choice due to the cost and other difficulties of living in Manhattan. I mean, are commuter trains and non-212 home phone numbers actually so bad as to make one deny oneself the full measure of one's progeny?
posted by MattD at 6:06 PM on November 12, 2004

I'm an only child and my SO is an only child and we want one kid, if even that.

We have three cats, though.
posted by jennyb at 6:07 PM on November 12, 2004

Just some interesting riffs: I'm not an only, but I have many characteristics of one. I had the language skills and precocious intellectual interests that matched my parents' academic backgrounds. My brother is quite different in personality and had learning disabilities, so we grew up distant; he escaped from a family with which he felt he had little in common by joining the Navy and starting a family with a girl with worse disabilities. The blowback from that misfire landed the three children in my parents' custody. What this has meant is a highly active uncleship on my part, a role as surrogate parent (when I can't often hold basic adult relationships together). The kids, hampered by disorders of their own, are practically triplets by birth separation and act sometimes as a team and usually as a chaotic mess. I have never appreciated the quietude of my own upbringing so much as in the middle of the Grand Central Terminal that is, today, the home of three fiercely competitive teenagers who have bottomless needs for adult attention. So, without directly experiencing it myself, I see a lot of truth (though nothing deterministic) in the general observations made in the article and the thread.
posted by dhartung at 9:48 PM on November 12, 2004

Our only daughter is way more normal and sociable than either of her parents (I'm the supposedly typically strange second-born...but that's another thread). I think it has to do with the fact that not having siblings, it was necessary for her to make friends quickly on the playground, in preschool, etc.

She has many "onlies" as friends, and I have not seen them as any different from her sibling-blessed friends.

It will be sad, though, for our daughter to have no siblings to help her through the difficult days of our eventual merging with the Universe. We'll tell her to just stick the last surviving parent in a nursing home and leave it at that, but still...
posted by kozad at 8:00 AM on November 13, 2004

Am I a smart, difficult, introverted egomaniac who reads because I grew up in the house alone, or am I just looking for a magical explanation of why I am the way I am?

Unless there's a reputable study that can show it, I would suggest it's the latter - the way people can find what they want in an astrology column, this seems geared to make only children think, yes, I am like that, aren't I, because it's sort of complementary if in a sometimes indirect way.

I'm the older of two, and would use all those adjectives to describe myself. A close friend of mine from grade school was an only, and quite extroverted, and not at all difficult. My sister's best friend is an only, and the front woman for trashy sexy glam rock band; she has always been wild & extremely extroverted. Neither of them are particularly "readers". So, anecdotally it doesn't wash with me.
posted by mdn at 10:57 AM on November 13, 2004

Law school at Davis, CA this fall. Discussion of primogeniture in property class, the professor asks how many students are first or only children: something like 90% of the class raise their hands.

Probably a reasonable explanation...but still sent shivers up my spine. (My first comment! Hooray! Hello everyone, I've enjoyed reading y'all for years.)
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 1:21 PM on November 13, 2004

Years ago, I bought David Myers's The Pursuit of Happiness for an only niece when she moved away from town here. I mention it here because he mentioned a study of only children in the book--that study suggested that only children were happier and more well balanced than children with siblings.

The well-being of only children is a Dutch study that seems to support that.

The present study considers adolescent singletons in the Netherlands. It examines the related claims that only children have a less happy youth because they are pressed into adult thinking and behavior too early and that they stand out as "little eggheads"--good at school, but not very sportsmanlike, and unpopular among their peers. Data were gathered by means of questionnaires administered to 2,511 secondary schoolchildren. The only children in this sample neither appeared to be less happy nor was their global self-esteem any lower. The "little egghead" hypothesis was only partly confirmed. Only children feel themselves to be less proficient in sports. However, they do not consider themselves better in school or less popular among peers.

As does this:

Psychologist - and mother - says bigger is not always better

Social psychologist Susan Newman says "only child" isn't the dirty little phrase it was a generation ago. In fact, over the past decade, having only one child has become a parenting trend.

"Having only one child isn't selfish. It the best way for many people to parent," she says. "My research and studies show only-children do better in general happiness and in academic ability because they get more parental attention and more one-on-one intellectual stimulation."

posted by y2karl at 7:01 PM on November 13, 2004

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