One the both interesting and frustrating aspects of only child research is the conflicting data that emerges. On the one hand there are many like Polit and Falbo who believe their studies have shown little difference between children with siblings and only children, and others who say that only children have greater advantages because of so much parental attention. While others dwell on the popular stereotype of the maladapted, socially inept, lonely only.
Looking at the research on only-children over several decades Rosenberg & Hyde (1993) have attempted to account for the conflicting data by suggesting only-children are not a homogeneous group. After summarising the inconsistencies in the previous research they suggest there are two opposing theoretical views:
- The first view emphasises the uniqueness of onlies who are never dethroned and have all the parental attention and are advantaged.
- The second view states onlies suffer deprivation from lack of siblings and the learning experiences they offer, and thereby are disadvantaged.
Rosenberg & Hyde’s (1993) research suggests there are ‘three distinct types of female only children’.
Type 1 is labelled ‘normal, and well adjusted,’
Type 2 is labelled ‘impulsive, and acting out’
Type 3 is labelled “first-bornish”.
They claim that these three types remain consistent over the life span from early adolescence to late middle age. Rosenberg & Hyde conclude that the qualities associated with the three ‘types’ of only-child emerging in the study are understandable. They believe only-child research reflects the outcomes and views of the advantaged category as in Type 1 , whilst other types of research Type 2 and 3 reflect only-children in the disadvantaged category .
In Life Stages: Infancy I described a little about attachment theory which is concerned about the quality of the relationship between caretaker (mother) and infant. If there is a good attachment the baby will develop normally as the mother is attuned and able to meet the babies needs. This is what is labeled secure attachment and is similar to the Type 1 only child. Both Type 2 and 3 show patterns of insecure attachment that result in either over bearing or neglectful parenting. If we accept Rosenberg & Hyde view of the three types this may mean that only-children show a higher pattern of insecure attachment.
Why would this be?
I think that there is a multiplicity of reasons such as:
- First time parents are often more insecure about their parenting,
- The knowledge there is only to be one child for whatever reason for example: infertility, social policy, divorce, late parenthood, adoption or financial circumstances,
- The wish to be the parent to your child you never had.
- Parental deficits from the parent’s own childhood.
These are just a few reasons and another may also be the shame some parents feel from being the parent of an only child, which can be passed on to the child itself.
Certainly my own research showed that there is a real diversity in the range of only child experience and even three types of only children is fairly simplistic but it does at least make sense of the contradictory research findings.