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Talking with Toni Falbo

A visit with the sage of singleton research

No one has done more than Toni Falbo to disprove the idea that siblings are necessary for well-adjusted human development. An only child herself, and the mother of one, Falbo began investigating the realities of the only child experience in the 1970s, both here and in China. When she invites me to visit her graduate seminar in social psychology at the University of Texas, I promptly book a plane ticket to Austin. Once arrived, I find my way to a classroom to find a handsomely bobbed professor braving the ninety-degree heat in a chartreuse knit motorcycle jacket. Pacing the linoleum classroom floor in platform sandals, Falbo calls her class of kibitzing students to order and fires up a power point discussion.

The centerpiece of Falbo's research is almost as old as I am, and yet no one outside the field seems to have caught on. Thirty years ago, Falbo and a colleague named Denise Polit conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies from 1925 onward of only children that considered developmental outcomes of adjustment, character, sociability, achievement, and intelligence. The studies, mainly from the U.S. and Canada, cut across class and race. Not a single one proved that singletons are different from kids with siblings-except they score higher in measures of self-esteem and achievement. No one, she says, has published research that can demonstrate truth behind the stereotype of the only child as lonely, selfish, and maladjusted. (She has spoken those three words so many times in the past thirty-five years that they run together as one: lonelyselfishmaladjusted.)

Falbo and Polit later completed a second qualitative review of over two hundred additional personality studies, in total scrutinizing results from upwards of a hundred thousand subjects. They found that the personalities of only children were simply indistinguishable from their peers with siblings. I have yet to find a researcher who questions the sum of her findings (as Doug Downey, a sociologist at Ohio State, tells me, "no matter how hard we've all tried").

After a couple of hours of presenting data to her graduate students-all who have siblings, except for an exchange student from China (who is a product of the One Child Policy)-they still don't seem to internalize the lesson. After class, a student from West Texas is chatting with a student from India. He had astute things to say during class regarding how cultures adapt over time, offering sharp observations about psychology of collectivism. But now, he refers to how there's "no only child problem" in his big family. "I'm not saying only children are socially retarded or anything, but, you know-" he laughs. This is after a discussion about how, now that China is worried that the glut of single child families won't be able to support the country's massive elderly populations, they can't figure out how to get people to have more babies. Despite massive propaganda pushes to encourage fertility, families who now are familiar with the benefits of just having one prefer to stick with their new traditional model.

"People reproduce the environment they grew up in," says Falbo. "You just can't compete with the way people were raised."