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Dubai: Lonely, spoiled, awkward, selfish, maladjusted. These are just a few stereotypical notions used to describe only children for more than a century, often leading parents to feel guilty about their choices.

The words you read above are everyday descriptions of the way some people behave but when they are applied without thought to only children, they descend to stereotypes. In fact this stereotyping has gone on for such a long time, say experts, and often this kind of cliched approach can make parents guilty for having made the choice to have only one child.

In the UK in 2017, for example, according to the Office for National Statistics, 55 per cent of lone-parent families had just one dependent child, as did 51 per cent of cohabiting parents. Among married couples, which make up the biggest family type, 40 per cent had a single child. These figures aren’t perfect but they do show that smaller families are becoming the norm.

It is untrue that the only child have, or will have, no support system. The only children can cultivate their support system through extended family, friends, as well as other groups within their community.”

 - Madeeha Afridi | Counselling psychologist

“In China there has been quite a lot of interest in what might be the effects of having a whole nation growing up [in one-child families],” says Claire Hughes, a professor of developmental psychology and the deputy director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, in an article in The Guardian.

For many couples, the choice of having only one child can be due to physical, social or economic factors, and the trend, according to reports, seems to be on the rise globally.

With so much parental and family focus on one child, “the potential for them to be very egocentric is there, but actually, when people have looked, they haven’t really found it”, says Hughes.

UAE-based experts say that continued research in the field of psychology shows that the healthy development of a child lies in a family system, and not in the number of siblings they have.

Madeeha Afridi, counselling psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia says that “whether it is the only child, or a child with siblings, the ability to thrive and have healthy set of social skills depends on the home environment the adults or caretakers set, as well as the development and nurturing of the child’s mental, physical and emotional needs.”

55% of lone-parent families in UK in 2017 had just one dependent child

Afridi pointed out that it’s an “idealistic view” that to be part of a group of siblings, one will get along with them, or be supported by them. “It is untrue that the only children have, or will have, no support system. The only children can cultivate their support system through extended family, friends, as well as other groups they feel connected to within their community.”

Children with benefits

The author of Birth Order, Linda Blair, who is a clinical psychologist, says having one child comes with benefits since the parents can focus all their time or energy on that child. In the past, she adds, many parents usually couldn’t have another child for a reason and they ended up overprotecting the child.

“The realities of being an only child are, but not limited to, that the only child can have high emotional intelligence, build their social skills and be and feel connected to their peers, when their parents/caretakers create opportunities to develop these parts of them,” explained Afridi.

In Afridi’s experience of working with only children, she found that they can have just as much “street smarts” as children with siblings, due to the nature of their temperament, as well as the learning and growth that they are receiving from their parents and other outlets such as school and community.

“The home and school environment can be a positive place where only children can learn how to develop their emotional self and social skills. It is essential to remember that because a child has siblings, it does not ensure that they will be equipped in social skills, or have a high emotional intelligence,” she said.

She added that having siblings does not guarantee that a child will not experience loneliness; many children who have siblings can feel quite a disconnection and/or resistance with them.

40% of married couples in UK in 2017 had just one dependent child

“The key is the amount of attention and consistency the parents put in a child’s mental and emotional development and care,” she said.

But there are downsides, such as an only child may feel they are missing out on having someone in their family unit, or shared experiences and memories, good or bad, in life, other than with parents.

Parents can help by normalising that it is okay to not have siblings, to create a healthy space for their only child to ask them questions about what it’s like to not have siblings, she said.

“Other helpful actions parents can take is having an open and honest communication with their child, ensuring their child gets enough time and exposure to their peers (outside of school), to create opportunities in their regular schedule to nurture their social and emotional intelligence.”

What studies say

A number of studies have proved that lone children are no different than children with siblings and can even do better in many areas than other children raised in bigger families.

Only-child myth 

Much of this has been done by Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, who has researched only children since the 1970s. In one meta-analysis of studies, with Denise Polit, the pair found that “across all developmental outcomes, only children were indistinguishable from firstborns and people from small families” and did better than children from large families.

Not awkward at all

A2011 study found that while adults who had been only children engaged in fewer social activities with relatives (which may possibly be explained by having fewer relatives to begin with), they found no difference in the number of social engagements with others, such as friends and colleagues.

Peer victimisation

A survey of more than 2,500 Spanish teenagers found only children experienced higher rates of peer victimisation, but Hughes points out this may be affected by their perception of victimisation. “To some extent, siblings really teach you how to take the rough with the smooth.”

Flexible thinking

A study last year, by Southwest University in Chongqing, China, on more than 250 college-aged students, suggested only children were more flexible in their thinking, and therefore more creative, though showed “lower agreeableness”.

Viewpoint: Only children

Thara Thankachan, Indian expatriate, a mother of three kids

“Having been raised as an only child, I never felt lonely or unable to forge strong friendships. I lost my father at a young age but I was close to my mother. We were like best friends.

“One of the challenges only children face is learning how to share with others. When I got married, it took me time to learn this habit. Also, it took some time to learn the need to look out for others because as an only child, you’re used to everyone caring for you only.

“I did guilt my mother at one point for wanting siblings, but I quickly overcame that tendency. Most of my classmates had siblings and it was nice to see how they shared so much, including clothes. “Fortunately, I developed a mature outlook on life early in life and learnt how to take on responsibilities. I knew the importance of money from a very young age because my mother used to discuss it with me.

“One thing I’m sure of is that only children have stronger friendships than kids with siblings because [only children] choose to build very close ties.”

Vijay Khatri, Nepalese expatriate, travel consultant

“I have mixed feelings about being an only child. It’s sometimes fun because you can demand something and get it and you don’t have to share it with anyone. You get all the love and pampering from your parents and it does not get divided among others.

“Being an only child however does not mean you are a different kind of a person.

“As an only children, however, I have never felt lonely in my life, and have always been social and happy, and been able to build strong friendships. My friends are almost like my siblings.

“Of course, there is another side too. When I watch my friends celebrate an occasion with their siblings, I [sometimes] wish I too had siblings.

“Also, being an only child can make a person selfish but I do not wish to generalise. Parents can become overprotective about you and this can be a disadvantage. My friends [with siblings] had no curfew or restrictions placed on them, but my parents have fixed timings for me all the time.

“Overall though, the positives far outweigh the negatives.”