An only child is a happy child

In an interview with Rolling Stone
magazine, Natalie Portman once said: “I would never have been an actress if I
weren’t an only child, because my parents would never have let me be the star
of the family at the expense of another child.”

It turns out that when it comes to
the advantages of life without brothers and sisters, she was on to something.

One of the widest-ranging research
projects on family life conducted in Britain has revealed that the fewer
siblings’ children have, the happier they are – and that only children are the
most contented.

The findings, shared exclusively
with the Observer, suggest that “sibling bullying” could be part of the problem,
with 31 per cent of children saying they are hit, kicked or pushed by a brother
or sister “quite a lot” or “a lot”. Others complain of belongings being stolen
by siblings and being called hurtful names.

The figures are the first to emerge
from Understanding Society, a study tracking the lives of 100,000 people in
40,000 British households.

On children and happiness, it found

Seven out of 10 British teenagers
are “very satisfied” with their lives.

Children from ethnic minorities are
on average happier than their white British counterparts.

Happiness declines the more
siblings there are in a household.

Questionnaires analysed

The findings are based on in-depth
questionnaires completed by 2,500 young people, which have been analysed by
Gundi Knies from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the
University of Essex where the Understanding Society study is based. She
suggested that factors such as competition for the parents’ attention or the
fact that toys, sweets or space need to be shared could be to blame. Knies also
pointed to other data within the study on sibling bullying: 29.5 per cent of
teenagers complain of being called “nasty names” by brothers or sisters “quite
a lot” or “a lot”, while 17.6 per cent say they have their belongings taken
away from them.

Professor Dieter Wolke of the
University of Warwick, who carried out the work on tensions between brothers
and sisters, said: “More than half of all siblings (54 per cent) were involved
in bullying in one form or the other.” Although there is also evidence that
points to siblings providing support for each other, he warned that children
who faced bullying both at home and in the playground were particularly
vulnerable to behaviour problems and unhappiness.

Wolke did not study the impact of
such tensions on parents, but added: “From anecdotal reports, quarrelling
siblings increase stress for parents and some just give up intervening or intervene
inconsistently, leaving the field wide open for the bully sibling.”

Siobhan Freegard, the co-founder of
the website Netmums who has three children, said that many mothers felt like
“referees” after their children reached a certain age and started quarrelling
with their brothers and sisters.

She questioned whether the findings
on happiness were linked to the fact that children were desperate for parental
attention. “With three children, it is three lots of dinner, three lots of
washing, three lots of driving to after-school activities, so you do get less
time for each. I like to think they are getting benefits in other ways,” said
Ms Freegard.

She said the findings would come as
a relief to the parents of only children who often felt guilty about the lack
of brothers and sisters.

Findings seem surprising

She discussed the issue recently
with her friend, Tanya Honey, who has one child, a daughter. Ms Honey admitted
that her daughter, Gemma, seven, recently wrote “a baby” on her shopping list.
“But friends always point out that she is a really happy child. When we go on
holiday she is brilliant at making friends and if there was a brother or sister
perhaps she wouldn’t be, because she would rely on them,” she added .

While the findings seem surprising,
experts say there are clear reasons why more siblings could reduce happiness.
Dr. Ruth Coppard, a child psychologist, said: “In an average home the more
children, the less privacy for each child. Some love sharing a bedroom with a
sibling but they would rather choose to do it than have to do it. There is
competition for parental time.”

She said she made a conscious
decision to have just two children because more would become unaffordable.
“After that I would need a bigger car, more bedrooms, holidays would be
difficult,” she said. But she argued that there were also issues for only
children, who were the “sole recipients of parental expectations”.

Parentline Plus, a charity that
offers support to parents, regularly receives calls about sibling rivalry.
“Families do report concerns regarding high levels of conflict among siblings
and the stress that this can cause, but the important thing is to try to help
and support families find more effective ways of dealing with this problem,”
said Alison Phillips, director of policy and communications.

She has issued a series of tips to
parents including: don’t be too quick to blame, even if one child looks innocent;
ensure children have a special place for their belongings; insist they ask if
they want to use something owned by a sibling, and show firmly that you do not
approve of bullying behaviour.

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