Could You Unintentionally Be Labeling Your Child?
Why we believe stereotypes, and why we should avoid applying them to kids.
Posted Jul 15, 2020
I was surprised when I read a parenting researcher’s email introduction with a link to an article she wrote about understanding children’s meltdowns and reactions to different situations. Amy Webb, Ph.D. opened her email with questions…and answered them:
“Do you remember a time when your child reacted to a situation in a completely surprising way? Perhaps a little scrape on the knee resulted in a half-hour meltdown? You may have asked yourself: why did she react so dramatically?
"I clearly remember one of these situations. It was one of the first times I took my oldest son to a park as a toddler. He was still toddling around trying not to trip on his own feet. I thought he'd be hesitant to interact with new kids, especially since he was an only child at the time.”
She pointedly implied that only children are shy. Certainly not all or most of them and definitely not her toddler. Her comment also suggests that children need siblings to interact and be comfortable with their peers—something science refutes.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of only children and their parents and reviewed many studies that explore the stereotypes about only children. If anything, many only children are outgoing and eager to engage with other children whether or not they know them, while others can be shy and hesitant to interact with new people. The researcher acknowledged this fact by explaining her son’s playground interactions:
“He went up to every child on the playground and tried to engage with them, even with his limited vocabulary. I was flabbergasted! This is so not like how I would react.”
Her insinuation that kids need siblings to learn to socialize with other children is old-school. Her son’s temperament was already at work as a toddler. He has a brother now, but he likely would have developed keen social skills on his own, as his young playground behavior flagged.
Webb’s article focuses on children’s unique temperaments and points out that “It is important to remember that the child temperament types described in these theories (e.g., “difficult,” “easy,” “slow to warm up”) are not meant to be labels in which children can be pigeonholed for life. They are simply categories that help describe different combinations of characteristics or behavior patterns. Although there seems to be some genetic basis for temperament, this does not mean a child is destined to be one way or another. Many other factors come into play."
I agree: Every child is exposed to an endless array of experiences that will shape his temperament and how he functions in the world. Having or lacking a sibling is just one piece of the thousands of pieces that contribute to and shape a child's development.
Amy Webb’s work is spot-on and her information at The Thoughtful Parent solidly based in research and extremely helpful to parents. Could be that in her email this self-described introvert was projecting how she would react in a similar situation? Or perhaps she slipped into now-ancient mythology—read: stereotype—that only children are shy, even lonely, and need siblings to sharpen their skills so they can play well with others.
How easy it is for anyone to fall into stereotypical thinking and attitudes, even topnotch professionals who are trained to be cautious with comments and innuendos that stigmatize. Hearing the only child myths repeatedly as we have for more than 100 years simply reinforces them.
In an op-ed for The New York Times titled, “Your Brain Lies to You,” Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University, and Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and co-author with Wang of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, note, "if their message [in this case, only child stereotypes] is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked."
Copyright @2020 by Susan Newman
Wang, Sam and Aamodt, Sandra. (2008). “Op-Ed: Your Brain Lies to You,” New York Times, June 27.
Webb, Amy. (2020) “Understanding Your Child’s Temperament.” A Series. The Thoughtful Parent: July.