Growing up as an only child doesn’t seem to be a social disadvantage in the teen years, suggests new research. The study, conducted by researchers at Ohio State, observed more than 13,000 middle and high school students across the country and found that “only children” were chosen as friends by their schoolmates just as often as were peers who grew up 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 Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University’s Marion campus. Bobbitt-Zeher and Douglas Downey, professor of sociology at Ohio State, presented their findings August 16th in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
“As family sizes get smaller in industrialized countries, there is concern about what it might mean for society as more children grow up without brothers and sisters,” said Bobbitt-Zeher. “The fear is that they may be losing something by not learning social skills through interacting with siblings.”
In fact, an earlier study conducted by co-author Downey had demonstrated that “only children” showed poorer social skills in kindergarten compared to those who had at least one sibling. This new study was designed to see if the advantage to having siblings persisted as children became adolescents.
Data from the study was provided by the National Study of Adolescent Health (ADD Health) in which students in grades 7 through 12 were interviewed at more than 100 schools nationwide during the 1994-95 academic year.
Each student was given a roster of all students at his or her school and asked to identify up to five male and five female friends. This allowed researchers to consider the popularity of a student by counting how many times peers identified him or her as a friend, said Bobbitt-Zeher.
Overall, students in the study were nominated as a friend by an average of five other schoolmates. The results showed no significant difference in being chosen as a friend between those who had siblings and those who were an “only child.”
Researchers took into account a wide variety of factors, including socioeconomic status, parents’ age, race, and whether a teen lives with both biological parents or not. They found that none of these factors changed the relationship between number of siblings and social skills. They also discovered that the number of siblings didn’t matter, nor were there any statistical differences if the siblings were any combination of brothers or sisters, stepsiblings, half-siblings or adopted siblings.
“In every combination we tested, siblings had no impact on how popular a student was among peers,” said Bobbitt-Zeher.
Bobbitt-Zeher cited reasons for the difference between the earlier study on kindergarteners and the current study on teens. She noted that the kindergarten study was based on teacher ratings of social skills, while the teen study used friendship nominations by peers. But more importantly, she believes that children learn a lot about getting along with others between kindergarten and high school.
“Kids interact in school, they’re participating in extracurricular activities, and they’re socializing in and out of school,” Bobbit-Zeher said. “Anyone who didn’t have that peer interaction at home with siblings gets a lot of opportunities to develop social skills as they go through school.”