The Gist: Growing up without siblings doesn't harm social skills.
The Source: "Good for Nothing? Number of Siblings and Friendship Nominations Among Adolescents," by Donna Bobbitt-Zeher and Douglas B. Downey, Ohio State University.
Serial parents may think that each new sibling offers their offspring the gift of companionship. But while we tend to think that siblings teach one another conflict resolution and other interpersonal skills, new research says they are no better off socially than children without siblings.
"Most studies look at the negative consequences of having siblings in terms of educational outcome," said Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, the lead author of the study. "But we decided to look at social skills to see if there was any other possible benefit to having brothers or sisters." She and her co-author, Douglas Downey are sociologists at Ohio State's Marion campus, and neither is an only child. They presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in August.
The paper is in large part a reply to a 2004 study, "Playing Well With Others in Kindergarten: The Benefits of Siblings at Home," also co-authored by Dr. Downey, which found that kindergarten teachers rated children without siblings worse in interpersonal skills, self-control and problem behaviors.
But an only child isn't necessarily a loner, misfit and brat. First, the social advantages found in children with siblings in the kindergarten study were quite modest. Second, the study relied on teacher evaluations, and teachers may not be reliable judges of friendships among their charges.
And now it seems that any benefits documented in kindergarten disappear altogether by middle school. Using a metric called "peer nomination," in which youths are asked to identify their friends by name, Dr. Downey and Dr. Bobbitt-Zeher drew on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, with a sample size of 13,466 students in 7th through 12th grades. They then counted how many people named each individual as a friend. This was used to proximate social skills since the socially inept would be unlikely to have lots of friends. The result: children without siblings had just as many friends as children with siblings.
"I see the two studies as a natural progression, showing what happens to the only children who didn't have much interaction before kindergarten," Dr. Downey said. Another study he is working on shows that the same only children evaluated in kindergarten had caught up by fifth grade.
While the studies don't examine the cause for the disappearing social boost to kindergartners with siblings, Dr. Downey speculates that continuing school, youth clubs and other group activities — especially in an era of overscheduled children — provide ample opportunity for onlys to sharpen their skills.
Or, speculates Dalton Conley, a sociologist at N.Y.U. who has studied sibling relationships, because an only child tends to be adult-centric, "it's plausible these only kids have trouble relating to fellow 5-year-olds." He added, "as they age, they are better able to relate to kids who are more adultlike." Sorry, Gosselins, advantage only children.