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Being and having an only child: separating truth from stereotype

An illustration of two Black parents of either side if a young kid with cornrows. The father is on the left and the mother is on the right, and both parents are holding one hand of the child and swinging them. The child has their feet off the ground and their knees bent. The three of them are standing on a grassy field and are all wearing coats.
Charnel Hunter

Assumptions about narcissism, loneliness and selfishness in only children are largely that: assumptions. But there are experiences unique to being an only child — and parenting one.

The diagnosis of “Only Child Syndrome” — the idea that only children will be less well-adjusted than their counterparts with siblings — was put forth by a child psychologist in the 1890s. His research has been scientifically debunked in multiple articles over the last century, and yet, many of the stereotypes he suggested through his studies remain.

Host Anita Rao talks with journalist Lauren Sandler, an only child parenting an only child, about why these stereotypes persist and how it affects the lived experiences of only children. Lauren is the author of “One and Only: The Freedom of Having An Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.”

Anita also talks with Corinne Lyons, a middle school English teacher in Detroit, about her experience growing up as an only child with two parents who were also only children — and how that impacted her concept of family and her own desires for parenthood.

And former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins joins to read his poem “Only Child” and talk about how being an only child connected him with imagination and a career in poetry.

Special thanks to Jeanene, a parent who wished to remain anonymous, Kate, Leslie, Anna and Whitney for sharing their stories with us.

Please note: This episode originally aired March 10, 2023.

Update: Billy Collins’ forthcoming collection of new poems, WATER, WATER, will be out in November.

Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.