Only Child versus Sibling: How Do They Differ?

Growing up as an only child, I couldn’t complain. There weren’t hand-me-downs or shared bedrooms, and the attention was always on me. As I grew up, however, I began to wonder what the camaraderie of siblings would be like – especially from watching my friends with brothers or sisters. I also wondered how different I might be as a person.

Being a parent to two little ones now, my curiosity only continued to grow. I came from a family where I was the only child while the father of my children has seven siblings, and our children have each other, which truly made me more interested in what differences that creates. 

According to psychologist Susan Newman, only 20% of the family population is one child. Meaning the large majority of families have more than one child … and most children have siblings. For those without siblings though, there’s a general misconception that only children are loners or spoiled. Luckily, for those families who’d like to stick to one child, that’s far from the truth. But that still doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between only children and siblings. 

A study by the Southwest University in Chongqing found that children who grow up with no siblings will likely develop a different brain structure than those with siblings. The study showed, primarily, that only children outperformed those who have siblings in creativity while scoring lower on “agreeable” personality traits. The results of this study prompted me to look into my childhood and compare it to those around me who grew up with siblings – and those results began to make a lot of sense.

As an only child, I did often have to get creative at home or rely on myself for entertainment, adventure, learning and more because I didn’t have someone else around to stay occupied with or get distracted by. Additionally, my friends with siblings may not have been as creative but were much more comfortable socially and better at relating to others. Because they grew up with someone constantly around to socialize and interact with, it makes a lot of sense that while there may not be as much inner reflection there is a lot of social and personable growth. 

The study also showed that there can be ups and downs to personality influences from both only children and those with siblings. For example, only children can show higher intelligence, but undivided attention from parents can sometimes cause dependency, selfishness or social ineptitude. The focus that’s often put on only children by caregivers along with the lack of peer interaction at home has an effect on their environment, and also development – but not in a negative way by any means. Siblings, on the other hand, get to experience scenarios early on that allow them to practice socially, provide support and learn empathy, according to the study – and in this way, the brain develops differently for children with siblings, too.

Overall, there are going to be a few key factors that inevitably affect development from both perspectives. When parents can apply results from studies and research on only children versus siblings, it’s truly interesting how we can view those traits in peers, ourselves and even our own kid(s). While there’s no “right” choice or one scenario that’s better than the other, there are still obvious differences and effects that help mold each individual’s personality as they grow.

What other differences have you noticed between siblings and only children?

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