Yes, only children are different from children who grow up with brothers and sisters. Science has proven it. But there’s good news and bad news.
A team of Chinese researchers, led by Junyi Yang, carried out a study involving hundreds of university students – half of them only children, half of them not.
They were tested on their creativity, by being set tasks like coming up with new uses for cardboard boxes. Then they had to answer a questionnaire about their personality. Their brains were also scanned.
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The only children performed better on the creativity tasks. They also turned out to have more grey matter in the supramarginal gyrus of their brain. This region of the brain is believed to be linked to mental flexibility and imagination.
The findings held true even when parental income and education were taken into account.
The researchers believe the boost in creativity could be due to only children getting more one-on-one attention from their parents, and perhaps also their parents having higher expectations for them.
Now for the bad news. The only children scored lower on “agreeableness” – in other words, getting along with other people. Tying in with that, they had less grey matter in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain linked to thinking about the self in relation to others.
And why? Researchers think that perhaps only children get too much praise from their parents, and the lack of siblings means they don’t get as much practice at socialising.
Lauren Kavanagh is an only child, and she thinks there’s a lot of truth in the findings.
“I actually think I am more creative than friends of mine who have siblings,” she says. “I was often left to entertain myself, so I got super creative with my games and storylines for my dolls.”
Although she’s “really easy to get along with” now, Kavanagh says when she was younger, that wasn’t the case.
“I hated sharing, and would always prefer to play with just one other person as opposed to a big group,” she explains. “I definitely wasn't as tolerant of others compared to my friends who had siblings. Now though, it's completely different.”
Kavanagh says she’s always been drawn to other only children.
“I have quite a few friends now who don't have siblings. We seem to be a lot more independent, and we all have great relationships with our parents. I also found, growing up, that I coped well in social situations where there were adults, whereas my friends with siblings struggled to, I guess, 'grow up' in those kinds of environments.”
Meanwhile, another only child, Bethany McInnes, also thinks the findings ring true.
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“I think because I was left alone to play by myself, my imagination and creativity is a lot higher than those who had siblings to play with,” she says. “I had heaps of cool imaginary friends. I’d have to think up everything myself – which leads into being less agreeable, because I never really had to share or work together with anyone. It was my way and no one else’s.
“I never had to compromise, because I had no siblings to please.”
McInnes says that’s carried into her adult life.
“I am very set in my ways and don’t like changing them for other people. I have my cousin living with me at the moment and I can’t stand sharing!
“So there are good sides and bad sides of being an only child. I love it, though.”
Are you an only child, do you agree with their findings?