The Only Child: Debunking the Myths
By Lauren Sandler
July 8, 2010 - Time
The following is an abridged version of an article that appears in the July 19, 2010 print and iPad editions of TIME magazine.
It's a conversation I have most weeks — if not most days. This time, it happens when my 2-year-old daughter and I are buying milk at the supermarket. The cashiers fawn over her pink cheeks, and then I endure the usual dialogue.
"Another one coming soon?"
"Nope — it might be just this one."
"You'll have more. You'll see."
I offer no retort, but if I did, I'd start by asking these young minimum-wage earners to consider the following: The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average child in the U.S. costs his or her parents about $286,050 — before college. Those costs have risen during the recession. It's a marvel to me these days that anyone can manage a second kid — forget about a third.
Since I celebrated my 35th birthday, I have to ask myself not when, but if. "The recession has dramatically reshaped women's childbearing desires," says Larry Finer, the director of domestic policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a leading reproductive-health-research organization. The institute found that 64% of women polled said that with the economy the way it is, they couldn't afford to have a baby now. Forty-four percent said they plan to reduce or delay their childbearing — again, because of the economy. This happens during financial meltdowns: the Great Depression saw single-child families spike at 23%. Since the early '60s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number, to about 1 in 5 — and that's from before the markets crashed.
The entrenched aversion to stopping at one mainly amounts to a century-old public-relations issue. Single children are perceived as spoiled, selfish, solitary misfits. No parents want that for their kid. Since the 1970s, however, studies devoted to understanding the personality characteristics of only children have debunked that idea. I, for one, was happy without siblings. A few ex-boyfriends aside, people seem to think I turned out just fine. So why do we still worry that there's something wrong with just one?
The Lonely Only?
The image of the lonely only was the work of one man, Granville Stanley Hall. About 120 years ago, Hall established one of the first American psychology-research labs. But what he is most known for today is supervising the 1896 study "Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children," which described a series of only-child oddballs as permanent misfits. For decades, academics and advice columnists alike disseminated his conclusion that an only child could not be expected to go through life with the same capacity for adjustment that children with siblings possessed.
No one has done more to disprove Hall's stereotype than Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Falbo began investigating the only-child experience in the 1970s, both in the U.S. and in China, drawing on the experience of tens of thousands of subjects. Twenty-five years ago, she and colleague Denise Polit conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies of only children from 1925 onward that considered developmental outcomes of adjustment, character, sociability, achievement and intelligence. Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren't measurably different from
other kids — except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement. Of course, part of the reason we assume only children are spoiled is that whatever parents have to give, the only child gets it all. The argument Judith Blake makes in Family Size and Achievement as to why onlies are higher achievers across socioeconomic lines can be stated simply: there's no "dilution of resources," as she terms it, between siblings. No matter their income or occupation, parents of only children have more time, energy and money to invest in their kid.
But in that case, is there truth to the stereotype that they're overindulged? In Austin, I seek out psychologist Carl Pickhardt, who tells me, "There's no question that only children are highly indulged and highly protected." But that doesn't mean the stereotype is true, he says. "You've been given more attention and nurturing to develop yourself. But that's not the same thing as being selfish. On balance, that level of parental involvement is a good thing. All that attention is the energy for your self-esteem and achievement." But, he adds, "everything is double-edged. And everything is formative."
Will It Make Us Happier?
As parents, we tend to ask ourselves two questions when we talk about having more children. First, will it make our kid happier? And then, will it make us happier? A 2007 survey found that at a rate of 3 to 1, people believe the main purpose of marriage is the "mutual happiness and fulfillment" of adults rather than the "bearing and raising of children." There must be some balance between the joy our kids give us and the sacrifices we make to care for them.
"Most people are saying, I can't divide myself anymore," says social psychologist Susan Newman. Before technology made the office a 24-hour presence, we actually spent less time actively parenting, she explains. "We no longer send a child out to play for three hours and have those three hours to ourselves," she says. "Now you take them to the next practice, the next class. We've been consumed by our children. But we're moving back slowly to parents wanting to have a life too. And people are realizing that's simply easier with one."
As I enter what my obstetrician calls advanced maternal age, it's a choice my husband and I need to make soon. How we determine our happiness and our daughter's will be based on the love we feel for her and the realities — both joyful and trying — of what a larger family would mean.
If we end up having no other children, we'll have to be mindful to raise her to be part of something bigger than just us three. But must we share DNA to do that? As Newman tells me, "What really changes, the fewer siblings we have, is how we define family." I've been part of this redefinition all my life, casting cousins and friends as ersatz siblings since I was a child. For now, my kid is happy enough to dance down supermarket aisles by herself or with her friends and cousins. And with her, sometimes, I do too.(See pictures of famous only children.)(Read "The Case Against Overparenting.")