What else can we learn from only child research?

by on March 21, 2011

in Bernice's Research

Part 2

In the previous post: Research in the West and China – are only children different? I discussed the rather contradictory facts from the research carried out by both US and Chinese researchers. Let us look at these contradictions further and see what we may learn.

If we look at China: Poston & Falbo’s criticised the Chinese psychologists for holding negative stereotypes of only-children, as they did in their US research. Similarly they conclude that only-children are at a slight advantage over those with siblings, as they stated in the US. But it appears to me, that research, at least in China, has been politically useful with regard to the one-child policy and of course this is publically funded which I image is also the case in the US.

What is particularly interesting to me is the cultural bias all research contains. In China where collectivism and achievement is prized, independence and self-centredness does not fit the cultural norm. These are traits assigned to only-children, but are as much a result of parent in-put, connected to their hopes, aspirations and attention which, is all centered on their one child. Hardly surprising this effects the development of the only child’s personality. However these traits are not in line with the one child policy but fortunately Falbo and Polit’s research offers a more positive view concluding as it does, that these traits are not in fact the case.

In contrast, in the US, independence, self-sufficiency and success is prized, rather than collectivism, and these are seen to be the ‘positive’ side to having an only child. In the US studies parental attention is deemed to be a positive aspect of only child experience and an important factor in Polit & Falbo’s research.  Interestingly their findings did not support their belief that only-children have more positive character traits as a result of parental rather than sibling attention and yet it is this aspect, more than any other, which authors of books about parenting only children espouse.

So what can we conclude?
Whilst Polit & Falbo’s research has helped to challenge negative only child stereotypes the research is more restricted in its scope than people may realise. Much of the research undertaken has been on children and college students. These are often large scale studies which do not give an insight into the internal experience of the only child either as a child or adult. The research uses the dominant empirical research paradigm and focuses on behaviour, because these are deemed to be measurable.  However as Polit & Falbo found the variables make this task extremely difficult and inconclusive. In their final observations they said: ‘In sum, the results of the meta-analysis conducted for this review suggest only children are fairly similar with respect to a broad range of personality characteristics to other children raised with siblings’

This really dos not mean very much at all. Yet this research has had an enormous impact on the media who often quote, with out reference to any research in particular, that it is a proven fact that only children are not different to sibling children. One of the difficulties with this type of measurable research is that it is extremely hard to measure behaviour in any real way. Quantitative research cannot address the subjective feelings of only children, because these are not measurable. Nor can it measure the on-going experience of living as an only throughout one’s life-span. An only child remains one for life and my research suggests that only children often notice their onliness more as adults, especially as they get older. Major preoccupations like the care of elderly parents, are hardly going to be an issue for onlies children and college students.


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