Some only child research claims that only children (as children) are more ‘mature’ because they behave in adult-ways rather than child-like ways. Whilst the second part of this statement is probably true i.e. that only children exhibit more adult behaviours, the first part about being more mature is debatable. Most only children spend far more time in adult company, as they miss out on the 33% of time that research has estimated sibling children spend a day with each other. As a result they learn adult behaviours earlier, which can give them a veneer of maturity.
However maturity comes with social interaction with all age groups. For many only children, peer relationships can be less frequent because they have not had siblings to spend time with. So when they do encounter other children this can be a challenge because they are more used to the ‘rational’ or more ‘adult behaviours’ of adults. I noted from a number of posts that some people believe that only children’s socialising skills are not inhibited by a lack of siblings because they socialise at school. However I receive emails to the contrary telling me that only children often find or have found classroom and playground dynamics extremely difficult. Therefore, at least for some onlies, socialising can be a challenge.
Only children are very good at emulating adults – not really surprising when they spend far more time with adults than children. They may seem very ‘adult’ from an adult perspective but to other children they can seem out of step with their peers. Saying and doing what adults believe is ‘mature’ is in fact more to do with playing a role that adults may endorse as mature rather than any actual profound understanding of relationships and emotional reactions. In Susan Newman’s book ‘Parenting the Only Child,’ (2001), she looks at a number of myths which she then refutes as being true of the only child.
Myth 10: ‘Only children become too mature too quickly’. She agrees with the aspect of maturity but refutes it is too quick! As I stated above, maturity for the only child tends to be primarily superficial, a result of only children’s frequent interaction with adults. In Newman’s words: ‘they learn to copy adult behaviour and speech patterns’ which she states: ‘can’t possibly harm the only child’. However whilst of course it won’t harm them it does not mean they necessarily either understand or truly introject these behaviour patterns. What appears more important to Newman, as the next quotation states, is that children replicating adult behaviours makes it easier for adults to be around!
Newman believes: ‘Being comfortable with adults and acting mature enough so they do not mind having a child around opens vast opportunities for learning to the only child’ (2001:45).
She concludes this section about so-called ‘only child maturity’, again by emphasising the importance of appearing adult -like rather than child-like:
“…mature reasoning permits only children to react in more responsible and adult ways. They are better equipped to recognise and handle problems without going into juvenile tailspins and resorting to childish behaviour – a quality that wins the admiration of adults. This face of maturity, rather than being detrimental, actually helps ease many of the ups and downs children encounter.” (2001:46).
Whilst being a ‘little adult’, (in my day it was called ‘precociousness’), may win the ‘admiration’ of some adults, it would appear Newman views having an only child as a way of avoiding the challenges of childish behaviour. Surely to be childish is to behave as a child? what can be more natural than that? Children need to learn social skills but this is different from behaving like a ‘little adult’. Many other researchers’ of only children such as Pitkeathley & Emerson (1994), Roberts & White Blanton (2001), Pickhardt (1997), Feldman (1981), and even Winncott (1957) all argue that precociousness or taking on the persona of the ‘little adult’ is detrimental to the personal development of the only-child.
So no, I do not think only children are more mature, but I also do not think that this is a bad thing. Childhood is precious and should be a time for play and childlike activities. This is how we learn, not just by watching adults but by experiencing for ourselves, through play and other types of social interaction, who we are. In my work as psychotherapist, a lost childhood is one of the greatest difficulties any one has to overcome in adulthood. This can be true of the only child and of course equally true of a child who has had to take on too much responsibility too early, because there were many siblings or a lack of true parenting due to illness, physical or mental. This deficit can lead to long term depression and a sense of loss and not feeling able ‘to be’ an adult despite having ‘behaved’ as one from a very early age. In other words learning to ‘act’ like an adult and receiving positive feedback for doing, in the case of the only child, can be detrimental as it inhibits a more natural social interaction with peers and can lead to a sense of not knowing who one really is.