This study set out to learn about the subjective experiences of young adults who grew up as an only child. Some objective research exists regarding outcomes of educational achievement of only children but little information exists about the actual experiences of individuals. The demographic of only children is gaining numbers and the number of women intending to only have a single child is also increasing. In order for therapists to more accurately understand this phenomenon, more information about what it means to grow up as an only child must be gathered.
For the purpose of this study, an only child is defined as an individual who was the sole child of his parents (living or deceased) who never had another child in their home from birth to young adult hood. Young adults are individuals who are from the ages of twenty to twenty-nine. The sample group in this study consisted of twenty people who were recruited via announcements and word of mouth in university classes. Of the participants, twelve were women and eight were men; eleven were twenty to twenty-four years old and nine were twenty-five to twenty-nine years old. Four were adopted and the remaining sizteen were the sole biological children of their parents.
Although each participant varied in their experiences, certain patterns did emerge. As a group, they appreciated the lack of sibling rivalry, enjoyed time alone, and valued being the center of their parent's attention. At times, the participants reported they wished for a sibling, typically older, to assist and advise during adolescence. Some established bonds with surrogate siblings; cousins or close friends who could provide the emotional bond similar to that of a sibling. Many participants reported pressure to succeed in life; statistically only children are more likely to go to college than their counterparts are. Since much time was spent with parents and other adults, only children tend to grow up faster mentally and sometimes inhibiting their ability to identify with their age mates. Other concerns included being the sole caretaker of aging parents, never being a biological aunt/uncle, fear of raising more than once child since there is no basis for knowledge on this matter, and losing all connection with their families after their parents' death. As with many experiences, there are many pros and cons; the reported experiences of this group of young adult only children certainly reflects that.
I found it most interesting that most of the participants an unusual maturity in terms of their chronological age. Parents and adult friends of their parents treated the participants like an "adult" earlier on than their counterparts with siblings. Personally, I always felt older than my age and was quite articulate very early in my development. The participants also reported that this caused problems when developing relationships with age mates as it was easier to identify with adults and teachers. Coincidentally, I was always young for the grade I was in and when I would go away to summer camp, I would always get along best with the camp counselors and kids who were five or more years older than I.
The limitations in this study include general volunteer bias and the fact that 100% of the participants were college educated. Those who had significant troubles growing up may not be inclined to volunteer for the study and since the recruitment only took place on a college campus, a lack of non-college-educated potential participants existed. Out of the twenty participants, nine were recruited through classes at the Child and Family Studies department, which may have increased their sense of self-awareness over the normal individual.
The results certainly agree with my only personal experiences as well as other studies I have read. According to a study conducted by Keller & Zach, (2000) "Firstborns are preferred over laterborns," in a multi-sibling family. Only children are by definition the first-born child and receive undivided attention through out their whole lives. This includes the intellectual level invested by the parents. A study by Andeweg & Van Den Berg (2003) compared the family unit to an intellectual environment, which deteriorates with the addition of each newborn child. Since the quality of an only child's intellectual interaction with their parents is never jeopardized, the amount of mental stimulation and potential for growth remains stable. Only child are accustomed to being the center of attention and typically live in an atmosphere of constant parental concern for well being and success. (Ashby, 2003) All this attention may at times cause upset or angst, especially in teen years, however always knowing that someone cares, loves you, and knowing that you are the only one is a very comforting and reassuring feeling.