Dr. Shoba Srinath, Professor of Psychiatry, says there are many variables other than growing up single that influence a child's character…

There is a stereotype of the only child as one who is spoilt, selfish, and domineering. But it is just that — a stereotype or myth. It was especially strong in the late 19th and early 20th century literature. However, later psychologists said that the only child might have had poorer social skills in childhood but developed them by the time of adolescence and adulthood.

That is probably because a lot of time is spent at school or with other children at play, and socialisation keeps happening, so by the time they reach adolescence they have as many social and interpersonal skills as those with siblings. Later psychologists Toni Falbo and Denise Polit actually showed that single children were higher achievers, more independent and read more. Even we feel that missing out on sibling interaction and company is a bigger issue for younger children than older ones.

Avoiding generalisations

We must guard against generalisations. So many variables come into play as a child — whether a single one or with siblings — grows. The child's temperament, parenting practices, non-parental environmental influences like school, friendships, extended family, etc., all matter. There are many confounders in research in this area. We can't make categorical statements or say someone is behaving in so and so manner because he/she was or was not an only child.

Children have different temperamental styles. They have a method of functioning which is innate. But this is modifiable by nurture i.e. parents and caregivers can make changes.

Parenting makes a big difference — it's a very important variable. Some parents of a single child are overprotective and over-involved, and/or allow the child to get away with anything because they don't want to scold and ‘hurt' him. They might also pin all their hopes and dreams on him/her and pressurise him. All this will have a negative influence — the child can't face rejection in life, or feels overburdened and trapped, or becomes selfish and spoilt, etc.

Creating opportunities

But if parents are sensitive and knowledgeable and ensure the child gets opportunities to play with other kids, and learns about sharing and empathy and also learns the limits of his/her behaviour, the child will benefit.

Parents of only children must compensate for lack of sibling interaction by making them interact with cousins, friends, schoolmates, etc. And ensure actual, active sharing and exploring-things with other children — not watching TV, cinema, or playing computer games with other kids.

Of course, this is getting difficult for parents of a single child living in big metros and who are both working. Their child can get lonely and isolated. For various reasons, parents have an only child — income, time, career choices, or inability to have a second one.

We agree life is different for an only child. The child can get lonely and later might wish he had had siblings. Life can be different in a single-child family compared to a family with several siblings. But that does not mean a necessarily negative influence. It could actually make the only child more self-sufficient, and he/she learns to be independent much earlier. The reverse is also possible — an only child can become very dependent since he has a monopoly on the time, attention and care of his overprotective parents, especially mother. So, there is no compelling evidence that being an only child or having siblings is good or bad for a child.

AS TOLD TO ARUNA CHANDARAJU

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012