Aug. 17, 2010 -- Despite concerns that an "only" child may be spoiled by his or her parents, new research suggests that teenagers without siblings don't seem to be disadvantaged in the development of social skills.
Researchers at Ohio State University, who examined interview data on more than 13,000 middle and high school kids, say they found that those without siblings were chosen as friends by their classmates as often as those with brothers and sisters.
"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," Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, PhD, co-researcher of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State's Marion campus, says in a news release.
She says concerns that a lack of siblings could crimp the ability of young people to make friends have increased in recent years but appear to be unfounded.
Bobbitt-Zeher and Douglas Downey, PhD, a sociology professor at Ohio State's Columbus campus, examined data from the National Study of Adolescent Health, which included information from interviews with 13,466 adolescents in seventh through 12th grades at more than 100 schools during the 1994-1995 academic year.
Each youngster was given a roster of all students in his or her school, and asked to identify up to five male and five female friends.
Students in the study were nominated as a friend by an average of five other students. And no important differences were found in "friend" nominations of youths with or without siblings.
Researchers say their findings showed that:
- The number of siblings a teen had didn't matter when it came to being identified as a friend.
- Neither did it matter whether those siblings were brothers, sisters, or some combination, or if they were step-siblings or adopted siblings.
"In every combination we tested, siblings had no impact on how popular a student was among peers," Bobbitt-Zeher says.
Families Are Getting Smaller
Concerns about social skills of young people have increased in part because family sizes in industrialized countries have gotten smaller, meaning more kids are growing up without brothers and sisters, Bobbitt-Zeher says.
"The fear is that they may be losing something by not learning social skills through interacting with siblings," she says.
But that doesn't appear to be the case, even though a 2004 study by Downey did find that children with siblings had poorer social skills in kindergarten, compared with school mates who had at least one sibling. So the new study was done to determine whether that effect goes away, and it apparently does.
The researchers say there is also concern that parents who have large families are different from other parents in ways that may affect the popularity of their children.
Bobbitt-Zeher and Downey also factored into their analysis other variables, such as socioeconomic status, race, and whether a teen lives with both biological parents. Those factors didn't change their findings about the number of friends.
Bobbitt-Zeher says the 2004 study by Downey and the latest research project used different methods for estimating social skills, and that may have played a role. Also, the earlier study of kids in kindergarten was based on teacher ratings of social skills, not on number of professed friends among peers.
Learning Social Skills
Bobbitt-Zeher says she feels that kids learn a lot about getting along with others in the years between kindergarten and high school.
"Kids interact in school, they're participating in extracurricular activities, and they're socializing in and out of school," she says. "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."
The researchers conclude that the increase in smaller families "will have few consequences for children's social skills." The research was presented in Atlanta during the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.