Why do some families have only one child?

by on December 12, 2010

in Bernice's Research

Anne of Green Gables

The growing number of one-child families, is an interesting phenomena that is occurring in both the US and Europe. With an increase in population the only-child family has been advocated as a way to curb population, particularly in China. One of the main reasons in the West for the increase in only children, appears to be due to such factors as later marriages, careers for women, a higher divorce rate, lower fertility and a desire to combine family and work. Having a child, and a career, is now a common expectation for women, and limiting the family to one child avoids some of the disadvantages of increasing financial responsibility, and dividing time and attention between children.

In the past most families who had only one child did not do so through choice.  My research indicated that having one child was more often the consequence of a negative event, like a still birth, a sibling death, death of a spouse, low fertility, war, divorce, mental breakdown etc. It is only with the readily availability of contraception that the choice element became viable. However even then the family with more than one child was still very much the norm prior to birth control and there is undoubtedly underlying cultural messages that large families with lots of children are in some way superior to those families with one or none.

A glance at popular TV programmes bears this out with the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ , ‘2.5 children’ and almost all sitcoms containing ‘families’ have at least two children in the UK. The film, ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’, like many films from the US contains the quintessential fantasies of an ideal family life. Politically, family values play an important role, but a ‘family’ in the popular sense is nearly always considered in the 2+ child framework rather than just one child.

Despite this my research discovered that being an only is seen to be a disadvantage by the majority of people, signified by statistical polls taken from people belonging to both sibling families as much as single child families. The image of the only-child still carries with it the idea of the selfish, unable to share, isolated, socially challenged individual.  If you go into any parent forums mothers are often being encouraged to have more than one child or they are considered selfish. I have received a lot of emails from parents who have found their choice (or otherwise) of having one child is questioned; but people having more than one child is not challenged in the same way (although after four that tends to change around again!).

Fun in the park

Despite this, there is a growing trend to show the positive face of the only-child. Particularly in the US, much effort has been made to raise the profile of the singleton and demonstrate the advantages. Only-child research has promoted a positive view of the only-child as outgoing, confident, sociable and successful. This view has been encouraged in order to address the many negative only child stereotypes. However I think some of the reasoning in these arguments are flawed and I also do not believe that this positive spin on the only child experience is necessarily a good thing for only children themselves.

There are advantages and disadvantages in every sibling position in the family and only children are no different in that sense. However growing up without a sibling is a very different experience and I will explore more about this in my next post.

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