Only Child Syndrome

“Through fire and water, from the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him, the Balrog of Morgoth. Until at last, I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.”

If you’ve ever talked at length with James Brofos ’15, you’ve probably had to resist the urge to break out laughing when he ever so flagrantly adjusts his vocal intonation and quotes Gandalf the White from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But there is something intangibly different about him and his “kind.” How do we begin to wrestle with the definition of Brofos’ position as an only child?

According to contemporary personality theorists, there are five fundamental personality traits that are influenced by birth order: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. In his 1996 book titled “Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives,” researcher Frank Sulloway insisted that only children are more extroverted and obstinate than their counterparts with siblings. However, meta-analyses suggest that his beliefs hold little import. I’m tempted to side with the data.

Anirudh Jayanti ’14 said he believes that if he had a sibling, he or she would be far more assertive than Jayanti. As an only child, Jayanti said he is “more capable of dealing with solitude,” noting that even while at college, “sometimes I feel like I need to get away and be by myself for a bit.”

If you keep your eyes peeled, you might catch a glimpse of Jayanti as he makes his daily trek from his room in the McLaughlin cluster to the gym.

But between internship applications and abstract algebra homework, Jayanti, like many only children, seems to find his uniqueness a trifling curiosity rather than an important part of his life.

“Being an only child is all I’ve ever known,” Brofos said. “I cannot spend time thinking about such fanciful nonsense.”

Fanciful nonsense, of course, being that he would ever have been born with a sibling.

The most commonly held stereotype about only children, of course, is that they are spoiled brats. This was first propounded by the psychotherapist Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud, in a 1964 book titled “Problems of Neurosis.” Adler saw no reason to substantiate his claims, perhaps because his research broke entirely new ground in the nascent field of psychology by rebuffing Freud’s emphasis on the mother and father with a focus on siblings.

“My parents always paid a lot of attention to me,” Jayanti said. “From my point of view, they gave me a lot of things that other kids didn’t get.”

It’s important to note, however, that while Jayanti is cognizant of his exalted status in the eyes of his parents, he doesn’t see himself as maladjusted. And yet again, a 1987 quantitative review by Denis Polit and Toni Falbo in the Journal of Marriage and the Family snubbed Adler’s hypotheses and turned the tables in favor of only children.

The researchers claimed that only children are more motivated to achieve because increased parental attention often translates to increased parental criticism. Both Brofos and Jayanti said they are strongly committed to their schoolwork, rarely seeking out the Friday and Saturday fraternal love echoing down Webster Avenue.

In a 2007 Psychology Today article titled “The Adolescent Only Child,” Carl Pickhardt demonstrated that there is much untapped potential for nuanced interpretations of the psychology of the only child.

Among other things, he asserted that the only child has a propensity to become “adultized,” or socially and verbally precocious, because his or her only constant companions are parents.

“I believe that being an only child has something to do with the closeness of my relationship with my father,” Brofos said.

Indeed, Brofos exemplifies this phenomenon beautifully. While he has never set foot in the United Kingdom, his father’s native country, he speaks with an unequivocal British accent. Moreover, the earlier quote, which Brofos delivered in a startlingly Gandalf-like voice, is another offshoot of one of his favorite pastimes with his father: Both of them are quite adept at adjusting their voices.

One of my conclusions, unsupported by any scientific evidence, is that only children, including those at Dartmouth, tend to think very highly of themselves. But this isn’t necessarily unjustifiably so.

“I remember a lot of times when I wished I had a sibling,” Jayanti said. “This sibling would have been pretty chill. Kind of like me, I guess.”

Of the 120 million households in America, a full 20 million of them reported having only one child, according to Carl Pickhardt’s 2008 book, “The Future of Your Only Child.” And if trends in fertility rates continue as they have been, this number is set to increase rapidly in the future.

Perhaps our generation’s choices will spearhead the shift in the current paradigm. Until then, however, we need to give only children the credit they deserve. They are pretty chill, and we have more important Balrogs to fight.

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