Yes, Only Children Do Lag in Social Skills—But They Catch Up

The advantage of interacting with siblings and modeling their behavior is erased by high school.

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Parents of only children fret that they miss out on peer interaction, and the evidence does suggest that kindergarteners who are only children have fewer social skills than kids with siblings who can teach them the rules (and help try them out). But Ohio State University researchers say that onlies overcome any social skills deficits by the time they are in high school and have just as many friends as their peers. An only child won't be doomed to a lonely adolescence.

The researchers looked at 13,446 teenagers queried for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and asked them to name five male friends and five female friends. They then matched up the lists. The average teen was named five times, and only children were named as often as children with siblings. (The total range varied from 1 to 33.)

"Over time, as children move from elementary school into junior high and high school, they've had more time for peer interaction," says Donna Bobbit-Zeher, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University who presented the results of her research at the American Sociological Association meeting in Atlanta today. "They're in clubs and groups, and they're having more interaction in school. Whatever benefits there are in having a sibling are mediated; there's a catch-up."

The finding is unlikely to calm the fears of parents of young only children, especially if they see their child struggling to make friends, as so many kindergarteners do. But it reinforces previous research that, surprisingly, has shown no clear benefit to preschool. "It probably doesn't hurt to involve children early on in more activities or opportunities to be around other kids," Bobbitt-Zeher says. "What it does suggest is that if you have an only child, [this study] gives reasons not to be so worried."