Why it is time to debunk the stereotype of an only child

BIRTH RIGHT: There are countless stereotypes about birth order, but 'few are backed up by evidence.
BIRTH RIGHT: There are countless stereotypes about birth order, but 'few are backed up by evidence.
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Only children are spoilt and not good at sharing, while middle children invariably have a chip on their shoulder. Nonsense, says psychologist Lucy Maddox.

When I tell people I’m an only child I feel they do well not to flinch. There’s often a raised eyebrow, an ‘Oh’, followed by a pause.

Only children have a bad rep – we’re supposed to be spoilt and bad at sharing. We’re not the only ones to suffer from a stereotype: younger children are supposed to be used to getting their own way, older ones are supposed to be serious and sensitive, and middle ones – they’re supposed to have got a raw deal all round.

There are positive flip sides to these stereotypes too: only children are independent, older siblings are good leaders, younger ones as more playful and middle children more adaptable…

Like a weird circumstantial horoscope, we think we know a certain amount from someone’s position in their family. Do we though?

I remember playing alone very happily for hours, absorbed in a doll’s house my dad had made me. I also remember games I played with the three siblings of a family who lived near me. We played Robin Hood, we searched for toadstools, we made a water slide in the garden.

My friends with siblings recall their own memories, not always what I would predict. A younger brother recalls playing on his own a lot because his brother was so much older, but also remembers scraps over sharing toys.

Often people remember the family roles they were given: the clever one, the silly one – labels that can stick. Most of us think our status in relations to siblings had an impact on the development of our personality.

And yet, the evidence doesn’t back the stereotypes up. Some studies suggest there are consistent differences related to birth order, but many other suggest there are not.

One from the 1980s by Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst asked 7,582 young adults to complete personality questionnaires. They found no significant difference in traits between first-borns and second-borns in families which had two children.

In families of three or more children there was only one significant difference: last-borns were significantly lower on a measure of masculinity.

Ernst and Angst also reviewed more than 35 years of sibling research. They noticed that most studies that looked for differences in personality related to birth order showed no significant differences.

One type of study that did tend to yield results was hen the people who were answering the questions were other family members. When parents were asked to describe their children they tended to describe their first-borns as serious and responsible and their later-borns as cheerful and independent.

Ernst and Angst came up with an explanation: maybe these differences occur around the way parents treat children.

Eileen Kennedy Moore, a clinical psychologist with an interest in friendships, adds that the effect of having a sibling depends on the relationship you have with them.

“A good older sibling can definitely help children play in a more sophisticated way,” she says. “On the other there are plenty of siblings who train their siblings in bad behaviour.”

Kennedy Moore also doesn’t see being an only child as necessarily being a radically different experience either.

“Many singletons have sibling like relationships with either cousins or close friends of the family.”

Whatever our family situation, when we are growing up it does have an effect on us, of course it does, but it isn’t as clear cut as being able to predict what older or younger siblings will be like when they are adults. It is more subtle and complex than that and to my mind, also much more interesting.

Blueprint: How Our Childhoods Make Us Who We Are by Lucy Maddox is published by Little Brown, priced £14.99.