By Fiona Macrae, Daily Mail, 6th August 2010
They are often dismissed as being spoiled, selfish and lonely. But as they reach their teens, only children have just as many friends as other youngsters, a study has found. Research shows that while growing up without brothers and sisters may leave children awkward and tongue-tied initially, by the time they start secondary school they are as socially adept as classmates from bigger families. Urging parents not to worry that the apple of their eye won’t fit in at school, researcher Dr Donna Bobbitt-Zeher said: ‘As family sizes get smaller in industrialised countries, there is concern about what it might mean for society as more children grow up without brothers and sisters.’ ‘I don’t think anyone has to be concerned that if you don’t have siblings you won’t learn the social skills you need to get along with other students in high school.’
The Ohio State University sociologist made the finding after crunching data from surveys of more than 100 American secondary schools. The children, aged between 12 and 18, were given a list of all of the pupils at their school and asked to point out up to ten friends – five of each sex. Pupils with the most nominations were deemed the most popular, the American Sociological Society’s annual conference heard. Each child received an average of five nominations – and being an only child did not affect their popularity. Nor did social class, parents’ age, race or being from a singleparent family.
Dr Bobbitt-Zeher said: ‘In every combination we tested, siblings had no impact on how popular a student was among peers.’ Previous work by her colleague, Professor Douglas Downey, had found that only children found it hard to make friends on joining kindergarten. But that study relied on teach-ers’ opinions of the youngsters’ social skills, while the new one used friendship nominations by peers. More importantly, Dr Bobbitt-Zeher said she believes that only children get ample opportunity to learn about getting along with others as they grow up. Participation in sports, along with membership of the Scouts, Guides and other youth groups can all help them learn the art of give and take – and of being a good friend. The researcher said: ‘Kids interact in school, they’re participating in extracurricular activities and they’re socialising in and out of school. ‘Anyone who didn’t have that peer interaction at home with siblings gets a lot of opportunities to develop social skills as they go through school.’ Other studies have shown that a lack of young company at home drives only children to build strong friendships outside the family. They may also have higher selfesteem, perhaps because they do not have to deal with sibling rivalry and are made to feel special by their parents.