Choosing to Have Just One: Dispelling the Myths of the Only Child
It didn't take long for Kathryn True and her husband John to decide that they wanted just one child. "Once we got into the parenting process, we were overwhelmed with the amount of time and focus that it takes," says True, who lives on Vashon Island with 6-year-old daughter Alex. "We felt like we could be much better parents to one person. It also made more sense for us financially."
An increasing number of American families are traveling the road once less traveled -- raising only one child. And the good news is that parents of only children don't have to waste time feeling guilty. The stereotype of the singleton as lonely and spoiled -- and the parents of an only child as selfish -- is slowly being dismantled and replaced with a more positive image.
One reason is increased numbers. In Europe, single-child families have been nearly as common as larger families for some time, but singletons were typically harder to find in America -- until recently. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of U.S. women having only one child rose from roughly 10 percent to 23 percent between 1980 and 2000. "About 20 percent of children under 18 are singletons," says Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of Parenting an Only Child. "In larger cities like New York, San Francisco and L.A., almost 30 percent of families have a single child."
Experts say there are several reasons for this increase. Higher divorce rates mean more interrupted families and result in single parents with one child. More couples are starting families at an older age with an increased risk of fertility problems. And there is the mounting cost of living. According to recent Department of Agriculture statistics, the average cost for a modest-income family to raise a child from infancy to 17 years of age is $173,000 -- not including college.
Newman additionally points to the growing number of two-career couples. If both parents have to work, it can impact their ability to afford and logistically manage more than one child. "People are also realizing that with one child they can be great parents and still have time to pursue goals and interests," Newman says.
But despite the growing number of single-child families, many people are still conflicted about the decision to stop at one. A common reason parents give for having a second child is to provide a sibling so that the first won't be lonely or spoiled. Even those who have made a firm decision to stop at one sometimes wonder if they are somehow damaging their child by denying them a brother or sister.
Part of the reason is the tenacity of negative stereotypes about only children. Many of these blossomed in the late 19th century when American psychologist G. Stanley Hall decided to study "peculiar and exceptional" children. He concluded that only children were among the most likely to be "peculiar" and stated that being an only child was "a disease unto itself." Psychologist Alfred Adler echoed this, saying that "the only child has difficulty with independent activity and, sooner or later, they become useless in life."
This viewpoint went mostly unchallenged well into the 20th century. Only children were frequently labeled as lonely, selfish and maladjusted. Many saw singletons as unnaturally dependent or overly mature for their age. It wasn't until the 1970s, when a new generation of researchers began investigating only-child stereotypes, that things began to shift.
When Toni Falbo started studying singletons more than 30 years ago, she made waves by asserting that they were perfectly normal. Falbo, an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas, demonstrated through her research that only children were no more spoiled, lonely or unhappy then their peers with siblings. If anything, they had a slight edge over children from larger families. After examining more than 100 studies of only children, Falbo concluded that they "scored significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment." She says the findings probably are related to parents' attention, time and resources. "If you have one kid, they are more likely to get what they need," she says.
Falbo went on to study singletons in China, where reports of spoiled "little emperors" followed the country's adoption of a one-child policy. She again found that only children were virtually indistinguishable from children with siblings. Another similar study from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, published in 1994, found that gender was actually a much stronger variable than family size. Girls consistently rated higher than boys in achievement motivation and interpersonal skills.
Although child development professionals now widely agree that only children are ordinary folk, it's taking longer for the general public to shift gears. "I find that in this culture, most people expect you to have two children," Kathryn True says. "The common response is, 'Oh -- only one?' Most people are tactful about it, but I still feel like they expect an explanation."
Erica Nordlund, who lives in South Seattle with her husband Marc and 2-year-old son Angus, echoes True's experience. "There's still a social perception about families with siblings and families with one child -- somehow having siblings is still better," she says. "It's in the little things people say, like 'When are you having another one?' It's subtle, but it's still pressure." Nordlund also cites the persisting idea that parents should sacrifice everything for their child, a sentiment that leaves some parents feeling selfish for not providing siblings.
Why the prevailing notion that more is better? "It's only been about 100 years since we curbed infant mortality," Falbo notes. "Before that we had to have multiple children to end up with at least one. I think there is still something built into our thinking at a very deep level."
Long-standing stereotypes can be reinforced when people selectively hear stories that support them, Newman adds, such as adult only children who blame an unhappy childhood on not having siblings, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. "People forget that siblings don't always have a good experience either," she says. "Remember that the grass is often greener on the other side."
Another example is the idea that it is automatically better for a child to have siblings to help deal with aging parents. "The reality is, when kids get older, the elder care usually falls on one sibling -- the one that is closest and most financially able," Newman says. "Then you get siblings who complain about those who don't help out. There are pros and cons to any situation."
Indeed, raising a single child brings its own advantages and challenges. Some of the benefits are fairly obvious. Families with single children generally enjoy more time and resources to pursue personal goals, as well as to support the child's interests and education. Travel is usually less complicated and more affordable. Parents of single children don't have to contend with sibling rivalry and can give their child more uninterrupted attention.
However, the flip side of that attention can be one of the challenges. Parental expectations can sometimes fall heavily on a child who doesn't have siblings to dilute them. "Our challenge will be to not feel like we're investing everything in this one child," Nordlund says. "I don't want to put that pressure on him."
It can also be tempting to do too much for a singleton without other children to tend to. "In a multi-sibling home, so much goes on in the morning that children dressing themselves is a given," Newman says. "It's not open to arbitration as it is in many single-child families."
But many of the perceived challenges for single-child families are surmountable with thoughtful parenting. Although it's true that singletons don't have a built-in playmate, parents can easily tap into community resources. "Children have so many options for social activities and play dates," Newman says. "Many end up with sibling-like friends." Parents can also be mindful of the temptation to be overprotective or have unrealistic expectations of their child.
Newman encourages parents who are deciding whether to have more children to focus primarily on what works for them. "Don't base this important decision on other people's opinions or what they think about you," she cautions. She points out that parenting style and economics have a greater effect on a child's outcome than whether they have siblings. An unhappy parent can have a much more significant impact on a child's mental health then the lack of a brother or sister.
Although public opinion about only children is slower to change than research published by professionals, the trend still is toward the positive. "These antiquated myths are going by the wayside -- especially since the definition of family has changed so much," Newman says. Eventually, she adds, having a single child will just be one alternative, no worse or better than other choices.
Kathryn True is happy with her and her husband's choice to have one child, and at this point, her daughter also approves of their decision. "She knows we're not going to have any more children," True says. "She often comments on how glad she is that she's the only child in the family because she enjoys getting all of mom and dad."
This doesn't mean that True never wonders what it would be have been like to have another child. "Life twists and turns and you make decisions that send you on a particular path," she says. "It's normal to look back at the other path and wonder about it. But as time goes by, I appreciate our decision more and more, and see what it bring us rather than what it takes away."
Lisette Austin contributes regularly to local publications. She lives in Seattle with her husband and 4-year-old son.
Tips for parents with one child
- Involve children in social activities from a young age. Join a co-op preschool or regular playgroup. Regularly invite other children to your home so that your child learns to interact on "home territory."
- Make friends with other single-child families. Knowing that there are plenty of "onlies" out there normalizes the experience.
- Tap into resources for single-child families -- parenting books, online discussion boards, support groups.
- Take another child with you on vacations, particularly as your child gets older. Or team up with another family with children.
- Don't let others make you feel guilty about deciding to stop at one child. Focus on what is right for you and your family. You don't owe anyone an explanation.
- Remember that being an only child is not a disadvantage -- it is simply a reality. Some children will thrive and others will have difficulties, regardless of whether they are in a small or large family.
- Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only. Susan Newman, Ph.D., 2001
- You and Your Only Child: The Joys, Myths and Challenges of Raising an Only Child. Patricia Nachman, Ph.D. and Andrea Thompson, 1998
- Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families. Bill McKibben, 1998.
Books for children
- My Only Child, There's No One Like You. Dr. Kevin Leman and Kevin Leman II, 2005.
- Why am I an Only Child? Jane Annunziata, Psy.D. and Marc Nemiroff, Ph.D., 1998.
- Little Bunny's Sleepless Night. Carol Roth and Valerie Gorbachev, 1999
Web sites and discussion boards