How *do* people seem to know I'm an only child?
August 29, 2017 4:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm an only child and whenever people discover that I'm an only child they always say something snappy like "I knew it!" or "that explains everything." I'm perplexed by this reaction every time. So, people with siblings... what gives it away that I'm an only child? How do we act differently from people with siblings? A Dick Cavett interview with Truman Capote (two famous only children) inspired me to ask this, because Cavett complained about the same thing!!
posted by VirginiaPlain to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
They're full of it. Note that they say this AFTER you've told them you're an only child. If they guessed it before, they might be into something, but these are the same kind of people who would say that if you told them you were a Virgo. They'll then take a random character trait they think you have and shoehorn it into what they 'know' about this supposed subset of people.
posted by Jubey at 4:50 PM on August 29, 2017 [51 favorites]

I have always assumed it's because they're assholes.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:51 PM on August 29, 2017 [42 favorites]

I knew you were an only child!
posted by radicalawyer at 4:52 PM on August 29, 2017 [22 favorites]

Maybe you grew up very well supported by your parents and act somewhat entitled and have a large friend group? This is somewhat common to my only-child friends. Or maybe these people pick up on you not mentioning any siblings when you interact with them.
posted by ball00000ns at 4:55 PM on August 29, 2017

I think this falls under the category of dumb things people say because they heard other people say them and people need filler words in between actually exchanging information. There's no actual information exchange going on.
posted by bleep at 4:56 PM on August 29, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm an only, and apparently that makes me too sensitive, too needy, too demanding.

Fuck those people.
posted by Ftsqg at 4:57 PM on August 29, 2017 [17 favorites]

It's confirmation seeking. Some people think I'm an only child. When I tell them that I am in fact not an only child they then seek to qualify their guess by pointing out that I'm much older than my siblings or something else like that. It's bullshit. They might as well try to claim they knew your star sign, or your blood type (yes, really) based on your personality.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:00 PM on August 29, 2017 [12 favorites]

I would put them on the spot and ask them what made them think that you're an only child? Make them actually verbalise whatever obnoxious character traits they think you have. Watch them stammer as they try to talk their way around it. They thought you were an only child and now have it confirmed? Well you thought they were an asshole and now you have it confirmed too.
posted by Jubey at 5:04 PM on August 29, 2017 [23 favorites]

I think only children tend to give off more "me, I, me, I" vibes. When you have siblings, especially a bunch of them, one tends to be less likely to assert their Very Important Personal Take on things, and if you do, you probably won't be right because hell--everyone has an opinion and your thoughts just aren't that important. Plus it takes too much time to listen to everyone. I think only children tend to expect that they will be paid attention to or given consideration for their thoughts, more so than people with siblings.

[but this will probably be ignored, I'm just going to play in the corner quietly since no one listens to me anyway, as one of four]
posted by raztaj at 5:06 PM on August 29, 2017 [38 favorites]

They're full of it. Note that they say this AFTER you've told them you're an only child.

Only children (my son is one) are terrific. They're confident and secure. They relate well to adults and by extension to the outside world in general. (Hope that's you too.)

But the people who claim to know it in advance are jerks.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:07 PM on August 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I do disagree with people saying that personality theories based on birth order are complete bunk. These theories are found in psych textbooks because research has validated some of their conclusions.

Not that this means that only children are selfish and spoiled (the stereotype), but some research has suggested distinctive traits for only children: e.g. that only children are higher achieving. From Theories of Personality:

To [Alfred] Adler, only-born adults are overly concerned with being the center of attention, as they were in childhood. He also considered only-borns to be more selfish. Research has not consistently supported this notion. One study found that only children were more cooperative than first-borns or last-borns (Falbo, 1978). Another study found that they were more self-centered and less popular than were children reared with siblings (Jiao, Ji, & Jing, 1986).

An analysis of 115 studies of only-borns reported higher levels of achievement and intelligence and comparable social and emotional adjustment with people who have siblings (Falbo & Polit, 1986). Later research (Mellor, 1990) confirmed those results and reported that only children had greater initiative, aspiration, industriousness, and self-esteem.

An analysis of several studies shows that the number of siblings in a family is a consistent predictor of educational success; people with fewer siblings do perform better in school (Downey, 2001). Only-borns may also have more educational opportunities and parental resources, enabling them to perform better than children with siblings.

posted by crazy with stars at 5:08 PM on August 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

I always get "I knew you were the last child!" (because I am and for whatever reason it sometimes comes up) and the evidence I have gathered leads me to the conclusion that what they are saying is meaningless.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:10 PM on August 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah, seconding turbid dahlia -- if you're the youngest, or the oldest, or a middle child (guess which one I am!), you get this crap too. Take home message: lots of people are stupid.
posted by JanetLand at 5:15 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's confirmation bias. As adults, we generally meet other people outside of the context of the families they grew up in. If I've had enough conversations with an acquaintance and they never mention siblings, I tend to assume they're an only child. I'm pretty sure I've even said "I thought so" after learning a friend was an only child, but I meant "okay, yeah I don't remember you ever talking about siblings" and not "you are such a typical only child."
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:19 PM on August 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yep, I get it too, but unprompted... except I'm not an Only. When I tell them that I actually have a younger brother, they back-pedal into "ahhh yes, the first-borne, I knew it!"

To me, it feels as arbitrary as the "assessment" that I'm an Aries-Taurus Cuspian, or a Milleni-Old. Whatever all that means.
posted by functionequalsform at 5:23 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have only one kid, and the one thing I'll say I notice, not only with him but the other only children in his friend group: the onlies are more comfortable talking to adults. It's been this way since they were little. I have no idea if it's just them, but I've definitely noticed it. (Caveat: the kids in question are only in their mid-teens now.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:24 PM on August 29, 2017 [13 favorites]

People assume I am an only child and are often surprised to learn otherwise. As near as I can tell, this is because I was not at all close to my sibling growing up and thus don't talk about him when I talk about being a kid. It's nothing complex or insulting, it's just people putting together cues.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:58 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree the "I knew it" is bs or empty teasing, and that everyone gets this (youngest here.) But if you're curious, I think the negative side of the stereotype is an overconfident, entitled attitude that is thought to come from not having to collaborate or share resources/time/attention. The positive is the secure, mature, self-sufficient type.
posted by kapers at 6:01 PM on August 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

As another data point, I am an "only" but my situation is not "parents decided to have one child and then stopped" but rather a tragic family situation. And yes, people have brought this up to me at work, even lumping me in with other "onlys" as being "similar". So I am dinged both for not having siblings but also supposedly for being privileged, which could only be said of my childhood in the narrowest sense. It's kind of like talking about people who grew up in the "country" or "city" without allowing for the wide variation in such terms. My 2 cents.
posted by forthright at 6:41 PM on August 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

I agree with BlahLaLa. The main commonality among the only children I know is that they were all pretty comfortable taking to adults/tend to have closer relationships with older adults now that we are grown up. If anything I think the youngest children I know are the ones who fit the entitled stereotype.
posted by ferret branca at 6:43 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm an only (so's my kid) and people do seem quite comfortable saying some otherwise kind of insulting shit under cover of armchair psychoanalyzing only children. Calling someone selfish isn't made better by explaining that only children are always selfish, so la.

I think what people are doing as described in the Ask is just trying to sound smart via small talk, though. It's a post hoc hot take.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:49 PM on August 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

Birth order, generational generalizations (Baby Boomer, GenX, Millenial, etc.), and other ways of stereotyping people are about like horoscopes. The traits that are ascribed to you on this basis are so general. Try telling someone you're a middle child sometime and they'll say "I knew it!" to that as well.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:52 PM on August 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

Maybe you don't cram your food into your mouth as fast as possible whilst viciously guarding your plate. Or you can share a desk with a coworker without declaring, "this is MY side and that's YOUR side."

No seriously, this is MY side.
posted by Stonkle at 7:07 PM on August 29, 2017 [26 favorites]

I've gotten this a couple of times and never in a kind way. So I can only conclude that having siblings makes you mean.
posted by HotToddy at 7:31 PM on August 29, 2017 [12 favorites]

A friend of mine once told me that she knew I was an only child because I was comfortable saving my favourite foods to eat last. She also believes in blood types, so I don't know.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:40 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

"this is MY side and that's YOUR side."

My SO is an only and we were just talking about this today as we took turns playing a video game. I'd play for a while and then hand him the controller and be like "OK I've played enough it's your turn now" and he'd be like "That's fine, play as long as you want" And I was surprised he wasn't obsessed with fairness the way I was. Having a sibling made me really mindful of what "my share" of something is. In contrast, when he's at a BBQ or something he doesn't really look at, say, a bowl of potato salad and think "I can only have a fraction of that equivalent to how many people are here" the way I do. So it may not be a sibling thing but it felt like to me like it might be.
posted by jessamyn at 7:52 PM on August 29, 2017 [32 favorites]

When people find out how many siblings I have, they want to know where I come in the order. I make them guess, and, despite my occupation, they usually guess wrong. Not bossy enough, I guess. So, yes--confirmation bias.
posted by praemunire at 7:57 PM on August 29, 2017

Two more possibilities:

People who grow up with a sibling seem to have an innate sense that you can have conflict with your peers and/or flip them shit, and it will turn out ok in the end (because you're stuck with family). Onlies have to learn this from close friends, and not all onlies had the opportunity to do so, especially if they moved around a lot and didn't "grow up together" with their friends.

People who grow up with a sibling have a built-in companion and may not work as hard to seek out new friends (depends on situation of course). Onlies may have become accustomed to needing to seek outside friendships and may be better initiators.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:42 PM on August 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

> I think only children tend to give off more "me, I, me, I" vibes. When you have siblings, especially a bunch of them, one tends to be less likely to assert their Very Important Personal Take on things, and if you do, you probably won't be right because hell--everyone has an opinion and your thoughts just aren't that important. Plus it takes too much time to listen to everyone. I think only children tend to expect that they will be paid attention to or given consideration for their thoughts, more so than people with siblings.

I hear this sort of speculation from people with siblings all the time and it puzzles me to no end. I'm an only child and absolutely don't need to "me, I, I, me" because I never had to compete with a sibling for attention. I am less likely to expect my opinions to carry weight or be "right,"...because I lacked an audience. Parents don't necessarily hang on every word that their only kiddo says in order to validate and have meaningful discussions; and you're outnumbered in your house by grownups, so you *never* get to win, actually.
posted by desuetude at 11:40 PM on August 29, 2017 [18 favorites]

my son is an only child and we just spent the summer with another family who has 3 children and another family with 2 children.
Actually of all those kids my son was the one who lost out on occasion because he was not used to having to scream the loudest and to elbow in and grab to get what he wants.
The ones yelling ME and I the loudest where the ones with siblings. While it is true that sometimes he has trouble sharing once he has his hand on the popular item (as did the others), he has little to no skill in grabbing it first. The times we had to intervene were occasions he was just to timid to follow the example of the sibling children in pushing shoving and grabbing. The sibling children were also less willing to share treats or compromise (eg which movie to go see).

I think the whole only child = selfish child stuff is just BS.
posted by 15L06 at 12:55 AM on August 30, 2017 [15 favorites]

Maybe you don't cram your food into your mouth as fast as possible whilst viciously guarding your plate. When I started to mix more in my late teens and visited hosts (with say 3-4 kids) would say something like "you'd better get in there" - took a while to behave in a way that I was taught was 'rude', and there are literally dozens of such acts to learn.

I do tend to avoid social situations unless I have some level of control, else I find myself literally on the edge. Funny thing tho' - when I do go to a party I always find myself chatting at length to one other person and when families come up we find we're onlies, but no - anyone who does/did the "you're an only" would get an abrupt shock.

I enjoy my life but I wouldn't wish only-hood on anyone, but I really have no understanding of siblings - I've also witnessed several instances of extreme sibling dysfunction so am unsure what is 'normal' in a multi-kid family either.
posted by unearthed at 3:32 AM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine once told me that she knew I was an only child because I was comfortable saving my favourite foods to eat last....

I am the youngest of three and we were all very comfortable with saving our favourite food to eat last because if it was yours it was yours and the negotiating to change that would have taken so long the food would have become so stale as to be inedible.

I remember an early lesson in geometry involved dividing the surface of a rectangular nursery table so that it was in equal thirds where each third had an equal third of the perimeter as well as the surface since otherwise the middle section would have restricted access. My mother, who never let us write our names in our books, because that was defacing a book, oversaw this project which was done with a yardstick and an indelible marker directly on the surface of the table after much careful measuring.

Like any other comment that you could reply to with "What's that supposed to mean??!" The onus is on you to take pity on the poor person who made the comment for having poor social skills, and give them that faint self-pitying look that indicates that you are overlooking the fact that they made a social faux pas. You, being an eldest/only child, and thus having been raised with a higher ratio of adults have better social skills than to call them out on being a wittering idiot. You, being a middle child, and thus having been raised with a siblings of different ages to refine your social skills on, have better social skills than to call them out on being a wittering idiot. You, being an youngest child, and thus having been raised by siblings who modeled more mature behaviour and cut you some slack when you were dumb about these things, as we all sometimes are, have better social skills than to call them out on being a wittering idiot.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:11 AM on August 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

How it manifests in my household is that I (one of many) never take the last cracker / chip / chicken leg / piece of pizza / piece of cake etc., because whoever did that in my family would be berated and reproached by everyone for "eating it ALL." My husband (an only) has finally learned to stop saying "OK, WTF" whenever he opens the package of Triscuits to find one and a half crackers left.
posted by the turtle's teeth at 6:58 AM on August 30, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'm an only too (as is my best friend, as is my husband, as were most of my friends in high school: I think we travel in like-minded packs)! And I love this question--I've noticed and hated this reaction my entire life. I regularly ask what people mean when they say it, and the most interesting and exact answer I've gotten was this: "You can't take teasing."

And that's right. I totally can't take a certain type of teasing--sort of a faux-mean needling annoying pointless sarcasm that I simply don't know how to respond to. Apparently this is a thing that people with siblings know how to deal with, because it's how siblings interact as kids? When I get teased in this way, I just stare at the person and say that I know I'm being teased and I don't know why and I don't know how to respond. (I once asked a friend, point blank, for a script to use in this situation and he thought about it for awhile and told me to reply with "HA HA, that's rich!", which I tried for a while, much to said friend's amusement, but the reactions were so bad that I have ceased).

Also nthing above comments about onlies being more comfortable with adults as kids, and with older adults as adults. At work I hang out with the people in their 50s. I'm in my 30s.
posted by millipede at 7:30 AM on August 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

People always mean this disparagingly, it is never a compliment.

There are two things it can mean, in my experience:

1. Selfishness/inconsideration of others. E.g. my friend complaining about her boyfriend in terms of "maybe it's because he's an only child", when I said "what do you mean?" she said "in some ways it's obvious he's been brought up not having to consider other people".

She's made disparaging "only child" comments in my presence before, always about other people. I can't tell if she means to imply I'm inconsiderate, or not.

2. Oversensitiveness/underpreparedness for the "real world" with its "rough and tumble". 15L06 summed this up with the idea "he has little to no skill in grabbing it first". Or a naive unwillingness to engage in behaviour that seems "rude", especially "gimme" or "me first" behaviour.

Or in other ways, taking insults too seriously or perceiving oneself as having been maltreated or abused. By this standard, everyone who's ever written a Human Relations question on the green, agonizing about their shitty relationship with someone horrible and how can they make it work, what are they doing wrong? would be pegged as an only child who lets others walk all over them.

Basically, not knowing the *real* *unspoken* rules (might makes right, life isn't fair, etc.) but expecting people to go *by the book* and being destabilized when they don't.

I'm not commenting on the validity of either of these interpretations, but that's what people seem to mean by them.
posted by tel3path at 7:34 AM on August 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, one more idea.

It may be that only children have a different relationship to 'stuff' than sibling-ed people. For example: I used to live with my best friend when we were in our 20s. We are both onlies. We each bought a couch for our living room. The couches were identical. And we never discussed this, but I only ever sat on my couch and she only ever sat on her couch. I mean, it would have been fine with me if she sat on mine, and fine with her if I sat on hers, but it never occurred to either of us to sit on the other person's couch. There was no reason to, since we each had our own. We were also exactly the same size, and into similar styles of clothing, and did not share clothes. Not for any reason other than it didn't occur to us. It wasn't even on the radar for either of us. It's not selfishness or refusal to share--had she asked me, or had I asked her, to borrow anything, it would have been given with generosity. It just didn't occur to us. Borders and boundaries. We had an extremely compatible attitude towards 'stuff' in a way that I did not have with any other roommates I ever had, except for my husband, who is also an only child.
posted by millipede at 7:42 AM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

The only thing I've ever been accused of as an adult only child that I was like, okay, that is a fair cop is the thing about not knowing how to deal with being teased. It took me a while to get my husband (he has an older sister) to understand that teasing is most definitely not my love language. The only people who have ever legit teased me have been people that were actually trying to hurt and upset me.

But for sure being more comfortable around adults is a very common only kid trait. Now that I'm an adult I don't really have a comfort-level preference one way or the other.

All the shit about selfishness and inability to share is utter bunk. Parents of only children are just as capable of raising conscientious, empathetic kids as anyone else. My mom raised me to be painfully aware of other people's needs. I'm currently passing that on to my kid, because dang, people! We're trying to live in a society here!
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:53 AM on August 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a child I loved sharing anything, to the point that my parents were often frustrated about the way I would let friends take advantage of me.

Bu ohh gods, I just remembered all the crap I got when I went off to college as a freshman to live in a dorm room with a roommate -- nearly every adult I knew took the chance to intone "It'll be a big adjustment, now you'll have to learn to SHARE." I would blink and point out that I actually love sharing my things, and they'd crow "NOT LIKE THISSSS."

These people knew me, well enough that if they had thought about it for two seconds would have probably realized that their warning didn't make any sense. I dunno, maybe they had some sort of latent resentment about sharing with their own siblings that overpowered them and forced them to project their generic condescending irrelevant "advice?" (I vowed to not do this with the kids who are in my life.)
posted by desuetude at 8:32 AM on August 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

One of the things that especially exasperates me about all these armchair experts in birth order is that it is incredibly fucking ableist and reductive and probably racist and sexist too.

Not everyone gets to grow up in a happy intact family of one child or multiple children. Not everyone gets to grow up neurotypical (or with NT siblings, parents etc), or in robust mental health (or with mentally healthy siblings, parents, etc). Not everyone gets to grow up comfortably middle class and white, or safe, or living in the same house as their siblings. Not everyone gets the same opportunities or goes through the same traumas.

You cannot point at someone and say "she's probably an only child because she's not aggressive at work". There's an entire lifetime of experience, and probably some just internal personality configuration, and maybe literal neuro-bio differences in processing capacity that makes Person A great at sales and Person B great at data analysis and birth order is nowhere near the top of the list.

Anyway, if you've ever been on a parenting board you'll have seen the posts of "will my child be an actual literal monster if they're an only" as if they don't know any and can't imagine ever speaking to one, and please stop perpetuating this bullshit. Do not encourage incredibly superficial stereotyping by participating in it, it's not helpful and it normalizes other even nastier forms of stereotyping. "You know what they say about those people" is not a good look on anybody.

People are complex and diverse, and the only people you could even possibly have a meaningful conversation with about this stuff is maybe your own family members.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:08 AM on August 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm an only child and nobody's ever said this to me.

I can probably identify middle children, but that's because I'm the child of a middle girl and in my family, the middle girls seem to have some kind of "not the favorite" issues going on and I know how those dramas go.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:06 PM on August 30, 2017

I'm an only child who experiences the opposite reaction with people expressing shock that I don't have siblings. There are a lot of inaccurate, unfair stigmas perpetuated about only children &, only children who want to let their poor behavior easily excused & waved away, often feed that misconception. It's BS & probably varies from person to person, but I would say that while many only children have very positive qualities that were enhanced by being an only, more likely than not, it isn't a compliment & is a very rude thing to say. It could be an acknowledgment of your independence, resilience, adaptability, & maturity, but I'd say ignore it because it's BS regardless of what the commenter intends.
posted by katemcd at 4:25 PM on September 2, 2017

Nthing that one of the things I've noticed about only children is that they don't react in the same way to friendly teasing, as people who have siblings do. It's not necessarily a bad thing, as teasing can have a hidden aggression to it — but it's different.

Another thing I first noticed when I was an RA in college, and so was the first line of appeal in sorting out a lot of roommate issues: the people who were only children (or with siblings far apart in age) had a much lower tolerance for negotiating issues with their roommate, and were more quick to seek help from an RA or other adult in sorting it out; the people with close-in-age siblings would try much longer to just sort it out between themselves. This can be a good thing — it means that the only children who sought outside help sooner didn't generally have the horrid roommate issues, because a neutral party intervened much earlier. People with siblings had issues that fell into two camps — huge issues between people who were wildly incompatible in living style and personality, or issues so minor that they never brought them up to an outside authority.

A corollary to that, is that I noticed the only children were often a bit slower to accept peace overtures after minor arguments than people with siblings close in age. It's not that they don't ever accept the overtures, but there's less of a willingness to accept or tolerate minor arguments and disagreements as an inevitable part of relationships. My guess is that there's much more pressure from adults to work things out with a sibling, to constantly be agreeable, to negotiate. If an only child has an issue with a friend or classmate of theirs, their parents might not ever know. But when siblings are having a screaming match over who broke a favorite action figure, it's harder for adults to not notice the feud. Then the adults step in and sort it out, or tell the siblings to work it out on their own, or force reconciliation. Rinse and repeat multiple times a week (or day!) for 18 years… Siblings close in age are in an involuntary bootcamp of negotiation when they're young.

It's not that only children don't ever learn to negotiate with others, or that they always declare people dead to them after some minor issue — it's that in general, people with siblings close in age go through many more hours of fighting, negotiating, and making up after arguments, and thus tend to have more practice at it by the time they're adults.
posted by culfinglin at 12:22 PM on September 14, 2017

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