If you’re weighing whether or not to have a second child, don’t allow these common misconceptions sway your decision.
By: Lynn Berger
My daughter was barely a year old when my father-in-law asked us whether we planned on having a second child. “It would be sad for her,” he said, “if she remains on her own.” Having been a teacher for four decades, he knew for a fact that only children were egocentric, spoiled and a bit out of touch.
His remark stayed with me, not because of its eccentricity, but because it expressed a widespread belief: namely, that children are better off with a sibling, than without. When it comes to family formation, similarly common wisdoms abound. A few years later, when I was indeed expecting a second child, I was told that we were about to deprive our daughter of the undivided time and attention she had been able to count on until then, and that for this, both she and we would suffer. I was told we were to brace ourselves for jealousy and sibling rivalry. Later, when our son had finally arrived, relatives called him a “typical second child,” while our daughter was labeled a “classic firstborn.”
I had already begun to suspect by then that these ideas were mostly just that: ideas, passed on from generation to generation, repeated so often that they had hardened into truths. After all, siblings are as old as humanity, and so are the stories we tell about them, from Cain and Abel to Anna and Elsa. But what if these stories are, in fact, more like myths—and the truth is much more nuanced than we think?
Myth No. 1: Birth order affects your personality
In 1874, polymath Sir Francis Galton noticed that firstborns were overrepresented among English Men of Science. He believed this was due to primogeniture: the right of the firstborn child as heir. Galton reasoned that parents gave their firstborns more resources than second- and later-borns, which resulted in their achieving the highest stations in life.
His theory was the first in a long line of speculations about the effect of birth order on personality and chances of success. You probably know the clichés: the conscientious firstborn, the rebellious lastborn, the peace-keeping kid in the middle. But according to recent studies, in which psychologists examined large sibling datasets and controlled for other factors that might shape one’s character, evidence for a birth-order effect on personality is slim.
Researchers do, however, consistently find birth-order effects in other domains. For example, firstborns are more likely to have allergies, and they are on average a bit taller than later-borns. Also, on average, they score slightly higher on IQ tests and perform slightly better in school.
The likely explanation: during their first years of life, firstborns get all of their parents’ time and attention. Second-borns don’t get to enjoy that luxury, and since time is always in short supply, parents end up investing less in the cognitive development of their second-borns (mercifully, they do not invest any less in their second children’s emotional wellbeing).
This suggests that different outcomes between first- and second-borns are explained, in the end, by the different treatment they receive from their parents—not by innate personality traits. But, and this is important: While such averages reveal something about large groups, they don’t tell us what it means for any particular child to come in first or second.
Myth No. 2: Sibling rivalry is harmful and starts at birth
Sigmund Freud once noted that “hostile feelings towards brothers and sisters” must take up a substantial part of childhood dreams. Freud’s disciple Alfred Adler believed the arrival of a sibling to be traumatic: the first child was “dethroned” by the second, with lifelong rivalry as a result. Sibling rivalry became a prominent topic in parenting manuals a century ago, with parents being admonished to nip it in the bud, lest their children harm one another or grow up to be unstable adults. It’s still widely discussed on parenting forums today, and as a result, many parents approach the birth of their second child with a mix of excitement and trepidation.
In the late 1970s, psychologists decided to empirically test whether these theories were actually true. They visited families with a second baby on the way, both before and after the birth, and observed what every second-time parent has experienced firsthand: namely, that firstborns received a good deal less parental attention once the baby arrived. In response to this great transition, some firstborns developed problematic behavior, including anger tantrums and sudden bed-wetting; but these behaviors were always temporary.
More recently, US Psychologist Brenda Volling tracked more than 200 families as they made the transition from one child to two. Her conclusion: Children are a lot more resilient than we think. While some firstborns in her study displayed behavioral problems after their sibling was born, most of them were back to their own selves after four months. For some, behavioral problems even decreased, simply because they grew older, leaving the toddler-tantrum-phase behind. Traumatic dethronement? Not quite!
Myth No. 3: An only child is a lonely child
The 19th Century US Psychologist G. Stanley Hall famously remarked that being an only child is “a disease in itself.” As my father-in-law’s remark suggests, this belief has survived right up to the present. Over the last few decades, however, scientists studying the differences between children who grow up with or without siblings keep on finding that the cognitive, emotional and social development of only children barely differs from that of eldest children and children from small families.
At most, onlies are slightly more motivated in school and have a higher sense of self-esteem on average—hardly qualities we wouldn’t wish upon our children.
This is not to say that growing up with a sibling doesn’t affect you: it does. Researchers have found that siblings shape one another’s cognitive, social, emotional and moral development, often in a positive way, and that a warm sibling relationship can offer protection against mental hardship in stressful times.
The other side of the coin: particularly rivalrous or distant sibling relationships are correlated with a higher likelihood of behavioral problems. Correlation isn’t the same as causation, but it seems likely that a bad relationship and problematic behavior negatively reinforce each other once they get going. What’s more, sibling relationships turn out to be an excellent training ground for delinquent behavior.
The upshot: growing up with a sibling is no better or worse than growing up without one—it’s just different. This means we shouldn’t have a second child because we believe our firstborns will miss out on something if we don’t, or refrain from having a second because we fear it will backfire.
Neither myths nor science can point us in one direction or the other: only our personal preferences and deep-felt desires can.