Only children fare just fine

With smaller families all the rage
these days, some parents may worry over the consequences of having just one
child.

New research suggests that, as
teenagers, only children fare no better or worse in social skills than
adolescents with siblings.

“I don’t think anyone has to be
concerned that if you don’t have siblings, you won’t learn the social skills
you need to get along with other students in high school,” said study researcher
Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
Ms Bobbitt-Zeher and Ohio State professor of sociology Douglas Downey were
scheduled to present their research Monday, 23 August at the annual meeting of
the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, Georgia.

Popularity contest

Downing found in past research
that, for kindergarteners, having at least one sibling seemed to benefit how
teachers rated the kids’ social skills. Ms Bobbitt-Zeher and Mr. Downing wanted
to see whether this benefit persisted into adolescence.

They examined data of more than
13,000 middle and high school students who each had to list up to five male
friends and five female friends.

Overall, students were nominated by
an average of five other students as a friend. Results showed no significant
differences in popularity between those who had siblings and those who had
none.

“What is suggested is by the time
students are in adolescence, if there was a benefit to having siblings when you
were younger, having time to have other interactions – boy scouts, sports,
youth groups – those things might compensate for not having a sibling, so that
by the time they reach adolescence the negative effect was not there,” Ms
Bobbitt-Zeher said.

Whether a teen had brothers or
sisters, step- or full siblings, didn’t make any difference in the results.

The team also investigated whether
parents of only children are somehow different than those who have larger
families and it was these differences that somehow influenced their kids’
social skills. They accounted for socioeconomic status, parents’ age, race, and
whether a teen lives with both biological parents or not. None of these factors
mattered in terms of the results on social skills.

Small families growing

“In industrial countries [like] the
US, we’re seeing smaller family sizes, more children are going to be growing up
with no siblings, more children are going to be growing up in smaller
families,” Ms Bobbitt-Zeher said. “We’re wondering what the consequences are.”

She added, “What we’re suggesting
here is that by having smaller family sizes we really don’t see that kind of
detrimental influences. … We’re optimistic there are not going to be these
dire consequences as some might have throughout.”

In more recent research, Mr.
Downing has followed his kindergartener participants from his past work to
check out their social skills in fifth and eighth grades. He found that by the
time they reach fifth grade there is no real difference in social skills
between only children and those with siblings.

Past research has also suggested
that for cognitive skills, having no siblings is the same as having just one
sibling. But any more than one sibling and those kids showed poorer cognitive
scores. The general idea is that having more kids in a family dilutes
resources, including the time a parent has to help children with homework or to
work with them on certain verbal or math skills.

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