The Only Child: Debunking the Myths

by on July 30, 2011

in Articles

Madelyn Vickmark with her dad Bryce

By Lauren Sandler

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 applaud when she twirls for them, and then I endure the usual dialogue.

“Your first?”, “Yup.” “Another one coming soon?”. “Nope — it might be just this one.” “You’ll have more. You’ll see.” “At the moment, I’m not planning on it.” “You wouldn’t do that to your child. 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 actually risen during the recession. The milk I’m buying adds up to $50 a month, and we’re pushing toilet training just to drop the cost of diapers — about $100 a month — from our monthly budget. It’s a marvel to me these days that anyone can manage a second kid — forget about a third.

And since I celebrated my 35th birthday, I have to ask myself not when but if. My parents asked themselves that question when I was my daughter’s age and decided the answer was no. They wanted the experience of parenting but also their careers, the freedom to travel and the lower cost and urbane excitement of making a home in an apartment rather than a suburban house. Back then, their choice was rare, but if we too choose to stop at one child, my daughter will likely feel far less alone in her only status than I did.

“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% of all families, and that was back when onlies were still an anomaly. 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. Birth control has quickly become one of the recession’s few growth industries.

Meanwhile, friends and relatives — not to mention supermarket cashiers, pastors and, I’ve found, strangers on the subway — continue to urge parents of only children to have another baby. There are certain time-honored reasons for having that baby: in many countries and communities, the mandate to be fruitful and multiply is a powerful religious directive. And family size can be dictated by biology as much as by psychology. But 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, at a time when so many parents worry about being able to support more than one, do we still worry that there’s something wrong with just one? And what will it mean for future generations if more parents than ever before decide that one is enough?(See “Study: Children of Lesbians May Do Better Than Their Peers.”)

A Stereotype Is Born
The image of the lonely only — or at least the legitimizing of that idea — was the work of one man, Granville Stanley Hall. About 120 years ago, Hall established one of the first American psychology-research labs and was a leader of the child-study movement. A national network of study groups called Hall Clubs existed to spread his teachings. 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. Hall — and every other fledgling psychologist — knew close to nothing about credible research practices. Yet 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. “Being an only child is a disease in itself,” he claimed.


Later generations of scholars tried to correct the record, but their findings never filtered into popular parenting discourse. Meanwhile, the “peculiar” only children — “overprivileged, asocial, royally autonomous … self-centered, aloof and overly intellectual,” as sociologist Judith Blake describes them in her 1989 book Family Size and Achievement — permeated pop culture, from the demon children in horror films (The Omen, The Bad Seed) to the oddball sidekicks in ’80s sitcoms (Growing Pains, Family Ties). Even on the new show Modern Family, the tween singleton is a cringingly precocious loner with a coddling mother. Such vehicles have evangelized Hall’s teachings more than his clubs did. Of course we ask when someone is going to have “kids,” not “a kid.” Of course we think that one is the loneliest number.(See the long-term effects of spanking.)

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. An only child herself and the mother of one, Falbo began investigating the only-child experience in the 1970s, both in the U.S. and in China (where the government’s one-child policy, the world’s biggest experiment in population control, went into effect in 1979), 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. The studies, mainly from the U.S., cut across class and race.

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. No one, Falbo says, has published research that can demonstrate any truth behind the stereotype of the only child as lonely, selfish and maladjusted. (She has spoken those three words so many times in the past 35 years that they run together as one: lonelyselfishmaladjusted.) Falbo and Polit later completed a second quantitative review of more than 200 personality studies. By and large, they found that the personalities of only children were indistinguishable from their peers with siblings.

“For most people, this still hasn’t sunk in,” she tells me after a meeting of her graduate seminar in social psychology. She’s just spent a couple of hours pacing a linoleum classroom floor in platform heels, presenting data to her students — all of whom have siblings, except for an exchange student from China (who is a product of the one-child policy) — but they still don’t seem to have internalized the lesson. After class, a student from West Texas chats with a student from India. He had astute things to say during class regarding how cultures adapt over time, offering sharp observations about the psychology of collectivism. But now he refers to how there’s “no only-child problem” in his big family. “I’m not saying only children are socially retarded or anything, but, you know …” he laughs.

Undiluted Resources
At California State University at Dominguez Hills, Adriean Mancillas — an only child and the mother of triplets — has studied the prevalence of only-child stereotypes. They can be found cross-culturally from Estonia to Brazil, she says, dating to “when people needed bigger families to farm the land.” And they stick. “You can tell people all the research in the world that contradicts it,” she says, but the same

But if only children do get it all, doesn’t that mean there’s truth to the stereotype that they’re overindulged? In Austin, I seek out the counseling practice of psychologist Carl Pickhardt, who meets with patients in his office on the ground floor of a Victorian house. The low lamplight — and Kleenex box on his coffee table — renders an inversion of Falbo’s fluorescent-lit classroom. Pickhardt, author of The Future of Your Only Child, is neither cheerleading nor hectoring, as participants in the stratified conversation about only children tend to be. His soft-voiced presence is a reminder that clinical sampling can take us only so far, that human behavior cannot be entirely reduced to numbers on a questionnaire. (See sibling tensions all grown up.)

“There’s no question that only children are highly indulged and highly protected,” he tells me. But that doesn’t mean the stereotype is true, he says, at least not based on his four decades of seeing singletons — both kids and adults — unburden themselves in his office. “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.”

In a suburb outside Austin, Zoe and Don Mullican live with their 9-year-old daughter Sophia in a rented house with a red pickup parked outside. The beige sectional couch in the family room was a free Craigslist find; folding mesh chairs make up the outdoor furniture in the yard. On the tailgate of their truck is a purple sticker that bears the name of the private Austin Waldorf School, which Sophia attends. Zoe recently lost her job as an executive assistant in a law firm, and the new gig she found is only part time, resulting in a significant cut in their family income. (Don works as a civil engineer.) They’ve scaled back on “everything from gas to groceries to clothing,” Zoe says, but Sophia’s attendance at her school is nonnegotiable. As is her status as an only child. “We have such limited resources financially, and we want to give one person the best we could give,” Zoe tells me over Don’s home-brewed beer at a backyard barbecue.

Researchers have crunched the numbers from years of standardized tests like the National Merit Scholarship exam to measure verbal and mathematical abilities. In each category, only children performed better than children from larger families. Furthermore, they’re expected to. Falbo tells her class that parents have significantly higher expectations of academic achievement and attainment when they have just one kid. But Pickhardt notes that parental expectations are merely part of the pressure only children can feel. Much of it is self-imposed, he says, because of their notions of themselves as performing at a peer level with their parents. It’s the other edge of all that adult-icizing: pressure and responsibility usually accompany success, and neither feels much like childhood.(See how children deal with posttraumatic stress.)

But Zoe doesn’t sound that worried about it as we talk over the sound of Sophia belting out High School Musical karaoke upstairs in her room with two other singleton friends. Zoe was an only child herself until she was a teenager; so was her oldest friend, whose only child’s voice joins the chorus of Vanessa Hudgens impersonators. When Sophia and her friends come downstairs for grilled turkey burgers, Sophia expresses dismay that I haven’t heard of the band Ghostland Observatory, which she saw perform at Austin City Limits with her parents last year. “Mom, you gotta play it for her!” she says. “They’re one of our favorite bands,” the 9-year-old tells me. Zoe puts on the album, sits down next to Sophia and gives her a hug. “Isn’t this great?” they say together. To my only-child eyes, their dynamic looks ideal, but I can hear the nay-saying voices in my head wondering if this is the fullest form of childhood.

Will It Make Us Happier?
As parents, we tend to ask ourselves two questions when we talk with our partners about having more children. First, will it make our kid happier? And then, will it make us happier?

When University of Pennsylvania demography professor Samuel Preston was conducting research to help him predict the future of fertility, he told me the discovery that surprised him most was that parents felt so madly in love with their first child, they wanted a second. That’s an unusual finding. Talk to parents and you’ll often hear that they opt to have another because they think it will be better for the child they already have. Not many say they do it for themselves, no matter how much they may love the experience of parenting.
Read more:,9171,2002530,00.html#ixzz1TZUYvOUZ

But I bring it up because of how deeply I feel all that love for my kid. I am not someone who spent my first three decades imagining a glowing pregnancy followed by maternal bliss. In fact, I used to suspect that mothers who talked about their children with such unbridled wonder didn’t have much else going on in their lives. Then I had my daughter — and now I gush like the rest of them. When I was interviewing the parents of only children, several paraphrased the words of one mother I spoke with: “If I knew I could have him all over again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But being a mother, and loving being a mother, means being his mother — at least that’s how I experience it.” I can relate, which is why it amazes me when people seem to think that parents who choose to have one kid don’t love their child as much as parents who have more — that somehow they are doing their kid harm.(See if children’s picky eating is a sign of autism.)

Parents who intend to have only one say they can manage the drudgery with an eye on the light at the end of the tunnel. Beth Nixon, a Pennsylvania artist and mother of a 1-year-old, says she finds reassurance every day in the fact that “it’s not going to be an endless chain of need which is going to be fulfilled for years and years.” When her daughter Ida wakes up every hour and a half, screaming with the pain of teething, Nixon feels like it’s no big deal. “I can be fully present for this and do my best at trying to appreciate it, because it’s like, this is the only time I am going to do this.”

Rochelle Rosen works full time running her own educational-consulting firm in Massachusetts while a nanny stays with her young daughter. “People judge me for working full time and for saying I don’t want another kid, like these things mean I don’t love my daughter. They tell me I’d be happier if I didn’t work as much, if I had another kid,” she says. “If I have another child, in five years or 10 years will I be happy that I did it? Maybe. But I try to imagine the first couple of years and try to imagine the impact on my daughter. I am so torn in different directions already.”

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. Social scientists have surmised since the 1970s that singletons offer the rich experience of parenting without the consuming efforts that multiple children add: all the wonder and giggles and shampoo mohawks but with leftover energy for sex, conversation, reading and so on. The research of Hans-Peter Kohler, a population sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, gives weight to that idea. In his analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler told me, “At face value, you should say that you’ll stop at one child to maximize your subjective well being.” (See the case against summer vacation.)

“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.”

The New Traditional Family
While singleton households may become “the new traditional family,” as Newman puts it, in Leslie and Jarrod Moore’s church community in Amarillo, Texas, tradition means something quite different. The couple decided to become parents when Leslie was 25, but pregnancy didn’t come easily. It was years before Leslie finally conceived, and by the time Bryar — now 9 — arrived healthy, the Moores decided their hard-won baby boy was “the one God meant for us to have and the only one we want.” Jarrod, who has his own home-design company, is one of six and says he knows how hard it is to share resources with siblings. Bryar plays four sports, and “it’s already expensive,” says Leslie. “Forget college, insurance and a car. Imagine if we were running around to twice as many sporting events, buying twice as many uniforms and tennis shoes,” she says. “People around here think we’re crazy. But to tell you the truth, if by some weird twist I got pregnant accidentally, we would be devastated.”


If you comb the World Values Survey, you’ll find religiosity and fertility go hand in hand, whether in more secular Europe or in more pious America. As much as family size is a deeply personal issue, for many people it is also a spiritual one. And as Samuel Preston writes in his 2008 paper “The Future of American Fertility,” high fertility can beget high fertility: children who inherit their parents’ religious beliefs inherit at least one of the reasons to have many children themselves. No wonder churches nationwide vied to book Jon and Kate Gosselin (predivorce) for guest spots in their pulpits. Evangelicals — the biggest share of their viewership — saw the Gosselins’ brood as proof of pure piety.(See if kids should be screened for cholesterol.)

Back when the mandate to be fruitful and multiply was first chiseled in stone, there was a true impetus behind the idea. It was pretty elementary evolutionary psychology: the more you bred, the more likely your line was to survive. Large families were social networks and insurance policies. More kids meant more helping hands, more productivity, more comfort. In much of the world, that is still the case.

Most American families aren’t of biblical proportions any longer, but a plurality of adults (46%) say two children is the ideal number, according to a 2010 Pew survey on American motherhood. Only 3% said one child was ideal — the same number that said zero. But Kohler says his happiness study contributes to a consensus that a metamorphosis is afoot. “If people feel they have to give in to these social expectations to have more children, then they might have another child for reasons other than their own happiness,” he told me. “But as the acceptability of one-child families increases over time, there’s an absence of these pressures to have more children — and so people don’t.”

Falbo has observed that in some urban areas in China where the one-child policy has been relaxed and permission has been given to have more than one child, families still choose to have only one — largely because of economic uncertainty. And that’s not just an Asian phenomenon. A paper by Joshua Goldstein, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, made a stir at population conferences: he presented research on how the next generation of German and Austrian parents will be the first in Europe to see only children as more common.

Ascent of the Onlies?
Goldstein’s paper is just one of many exacerbating angst about the current low-fertility “crisis” that has European economists and policy wonks in a panic. In the early 1960s, Europe represented 20% of the world’s population. About a century later, those numbers are projected to drop to about 7.5%, despite the rise in minority and immigrant birthrates. Between now and 2030, demographers forecast the E.U. will have lost 13 million — or almost 4% — of people ages 15 to 64. Meanwhile, the number of people over 65 will increase by more than 40%. On a continent where the fertility rate is well below 2, these questions arise: Who will make up the workforce? Who will care for the disproportionate number of elderly citizens?

The latter is a question felt even more acutely on a personal level — particularly in the microcosm of the single-child family. A 2001 study found that one of the most consistent self-perceived challenges for only children was concern about being the sole caretaker for aging parents (including feelings of anxiety about being the sole survivor in the family once their parents died). My parents address my unspoken anxiety with monthly payments into a long-term health care insurance plan. But there are limits to what can be managed by logistics, even for families with the resources to plan ahead. Like many only children, I’ve lined up emotional and practical support — in my case, my spouse. My husband is like a son to my parents. He will be the first to spoon pureed food into my mother’s mouth, like he did for my grandmother, or help my father in the bathroom, like he did for my grandfather. And yet I know my parents are not his. I know it’s not the same.

Of course, having siblings is no guarantee that the burden of elder care will be shared equally or even shared at all. But imagining this emotionally fraught inevitability impels many people I know to have more kids, especially if they can afford them. (As one Park Avenue obstetrician told me, in her practice “three is the new black.”)

It may be tough to trace the overall impact of single-child families in the U.S., if, as some experts predict, they trend upward alongside an increase in larger families — not of the 9 by Design ilk but three- and four-child families. While demographers expect to see a slip in population because of the recession, the champion breeders among us will likely offset the continuing ascent of onlies. Preston, the University of Pennsylvania demographer, projects that in the U.S. both the number of larger families and the number of only children will keep growing. But our national picture will probably look a little different: the recent Pew study on American motherhood shows a major uptick in the share of births to Hispanic women, who now give birth to 1 in 4 babies, while white motherhood has declined by 12 percentage points since 1990. (The share of births to Asian mothers has also increased, though not nearly as dramatically, while African-American families have stayed stable.)

Even with those population segments in mind, Andrew Oswald, a professor at the University of Warwick who studies the relationship between economics and happiness, predicts many families will continue to shrink, assuming the nation doesn’t slide far deeper into economic crisis. Ironically, it seems that if economic pressures can bring about lower fertility, so can economic prosperity. “I love my own daughters to bits. But skiing and sports cars without baby seats can be fun too,” he says. “That’s why only children are the secular trend of a rich society we’ve been moving toward for the past 100 years.”

That trend is what is known as the second demographic transition, a concept Ron Lesthaeghe at the University of Michigan advanced 25 years ago. It refers to the fertility shift that occurred when the industrial world moved from high birth and death rates to low ones. Now postponement of parenthood — or refusal of it — in favor of greater focus on education and career, longer periods of searching for the ideal mate and a more flexible and pleasure-seeking life has given us the second demographic transition. Because of these “rich society” tendencies, Oswald guesses that 50-odd years from now, the U.S. will be worrying about declining population, just like Europe and Japan are today.(See “Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?”)

What shape might that worry take? Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has furrowed his brow a great deal over what he calls “the depopulation bomb” in Russia and China, but he says even if it were to go off in the U.S., we wouldn’t face the same kinds of collective problems. “It’s not like we don’t have the social capital, the rule of law, the sorts of institutional infrastructure that we in the West take for granted,” he told me. He says he’s not even that worried about Europe. “That’s a whole lot less consequential than in China, where there is no national public pension system, where people have relied on relatives for economic backup since time immemorial.” He’s not just talking about siblings: in China, as generations of only children follow each other, the cousin disappears from the family tree.

On the other hand, no one in the U.S. is taking Social Security for granted these days. If they needed it, I wouldn’t be able to financially support my parents in their decline without their long-term-care plan — especially with another year or two of day care still to go. If it were easier to be a parent in this country and if the current economic situation weren’t so dire, I might feel more inclined to have a second child myself.

As I enter what my obstetrician calls advanced maternal age, it’s a choice my husband and I need to make soon. In doing so, we talk about the idea that to be good parents, we have to be happy people. 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. What we won’t consider is whether being an only child will screw her up; we’ll do that fine in other ways.

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? Stepparents and stepsiblings have become firmly normative in American culture. Single, unmarried and gay parents have headed in that direction too. As Susan 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. Like most only children, I’ve cast cousins and friends as ersatz siblings since I was a child, knowing it’s not the same as having a brother or a sister but not necessarily missing what I don’t have. 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.

Previous post:

Next post: