Since I posted Durango’s article on only child syndrome there has been quite a lot of response – so I thought I would post some of my research and thoughts.
The word syndrome taken from the Greek word ‘sundromos’ meaning ‘running together’, is used for a group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease or psychological disorder, and can be attributed to a distinctive or characteristic pattern of behaviour. The strong medical connotations and the negative meaning usually attached to the word syndrome makes the word emotive and in many ways derogatory to the experience of the only-child. However I will explore this so called ‘syndrome’ from only child literature, popular ideas and prejudice.
Shil1978 wrote in ‘Pros and Cons of Being The Only Child’:
The advantages could be that you get the undivided love and attention of your parents. They would dote on you more and provide for you more – in terms of getting you stuff, toys, etc. Obviously, being an only child means that your parents have only you to spend the money on and not have to share it among other siblings. So, you’d get more toys than normal, more money to spend than normal, more inheritance than normal, and of course more love from your parents than normal. So, in that sense, being the only child can be termed as a good thing.
I think this is a good summary of what most people who have siblings see as the advantages – and lets face it, put like this, they do seem very good. This is what the pro only child lobby focus upon. However I suspect has beneath these good intentions is an underlying wish to give your child everything you feel you missed out on. If we turn our attention to China and the one child policy, this is exactly what many Chinese parents and grandparents have attempted to do. If you can only have one child, of course you are going to ensure that it has the best of everything. In the context of the hardships and privations that Chinese people have experienced in the last few centuries, this makes a great deal of sense. However one of the negative aspects of the on child policy is the – Little Emperor Syndrome.
As the Times recently published in Costly legacy for the spoilt Little Emperors:
Ice creams and piano lessons, designer sneakers and a flat of their own: these are some of the extras that China’s only children receive from their doting families. The one-child policy has created a generation of Little Emperors.
Or again in an older article in Asiaweek:
The world that China’s kids inhabit is a far cry from that of their parents. The earlier hardships are scarcely fathomable to today’s TV watching, French-fry chomping young. Having been denied education and material goods as children, many adults wildly over-compensate in doting on their kids. ‘Parents have a hard time saying no’ says Xia Ming, who teaches environmental studies at the Children’s Palace. ‘They had nothing, so the kids are their only hope’ (Reese, 27.9.1999)
These articles, and similar ones, emphasise both the only-child’s unwillingness to take responsibility and their lack of independence. However it is hard for children to take responsibility and be independent if they are not brought up to do this. In a previous article on three types of only children two opposing views of the only child were described. One states only children are disadvantaged because they are deprived of the learning experiences siblings offer, and the second emphasises the uniqueness of only children who are never dethroned and have all the parental attention. As I wrote in Are Only Children Happier? Many of the negative attitudes towards only children are based on the following view that only children are:
- Over indulged
- Require constant attention
- Are selfish – and put their needs first
- Expect their needs to be instantly gratified
- Fear independence and leaving home
- Can’t empathise with others as their world revolves around themselves – in psychological terms narcissistic.
This is the basis of the syndrome. As Durango Texas wrote:
The Only Children I’ve known have all pretty much matched the cliches about children who had no siblings. Spoiled, bratty, self-centred, selfish, an odd sense of entitlement, difficult to get along with plus a tendency to say inappropriate things that are rude and ill-mannered. Yet being extremely hyper-sensitive and brittle about even the most remotely critical remark going in their direction.
To be honest I do not think the idea of a syndrome at all helpful and I am against pathologising behaviour,which we are all capable of at times. However I do believe the experience of growing up without siblings has an effect and is on a continuum of being good in some instances but bad in others. I will say more about this at a later date. In the meantime lets hear from other people on this thorny topic.