This was the crux of the article published in the Daily Mail on the 16th April. Having been asked to comment about this, on live radio, I was interested to read Caroline Jones article on her experience of the overwhelming expectations from others, even complete strangers, that she should have another child to ensure her child would not be an only. She said she felt ‘bullied’ by people’s opinions and that her wish to have only one was viewed as ‘selfish’.
Am I surprised by her experience? No!
One of the interesting aspects, revealed in my evidence based research, is the continual pressure placed on one child families to have another child. She is absolutely right when she says that it is worse after you have had one child, as when you have none people are more sensitive to potential fertility problems. But have one child and that all changes. However in most cases people do make a choice to have one child and as I have said many times; that in itself is not a problem as long as parents’ are aware of the pitfalls of parenthood and that is true whether you are an only child or a sibling child.
However what really irritates me in Caroline’s article, is the need to justify having one child, by saying it is much better for the child because ‘research says…..’ interestingly this research is never actually quoted. In other articles, when it is, it is usually blown out of all proportion to the actual research study (read: Are only children happier?) but as usual the ‘research’ that is produced are the same as the ones stated in her article and probably based on US research in the 1960’s, that states only children:
- Perform better at school
- Have higher self-esteem
- Are more self-resilient
- Have fewer mental health problems
All this apparently because: they have so much more parental attention; they are never lonely because they have lots of children to play with and of course the prime reason they are so well adjusted is because they don’t have siblings. Why? Because siblings (research tells us!) would probably bully them and make their life a misery. Worse still, siblings would dilute attention from their parents who supposedly can only really give it sufficiently to one child. This is because, we are told, parents’ with more than one are far too busy to look after more than one child in any sort of nurturing way as they will be too exhausted with their own careers, marriages and a child’s extra curricula activities.
Am I surprised by this, now popular view? No!
What is more, we are also told that ‘research says’ second children break up marriages! Where? More children apparently means at best, you have to make choices entailing a poorer life style; the example given is a move to the London suburbs, or worst still, a move out of London altogether!
Having one child may be a life style choice and that’s fine, but please don’t give me this continual ‘research says that it’s much better for everyone if there is only one child.’ Why is this research not stated? Why do we have an opinion by a Dr Choudhry but no research evidenced?
In my published research, whilst some only children said they had lost out as an only child, they also believed this was balanced by the economic advantages and opportunities this afforded – many more would not agree and felt they lost out on a great deal of social and emotional learning from a lack of sibling experience. They also commonly found that the parental attention they received was by no means all good. We all know attention can be positive and negative, and yes, only children get all the attention, and yes, it is positive but also negative – does anyone mention that bit?
Three significant things I learned from my research on adult only children are:
- It is not good to be the center of attention, even if positive, as it builds unrealistic expectations that may never be fulfilled as an adult.
- Whilst many only children do not feel lonely as children, this is something that occurs later in life, particularly if they have found it hard to sustain ongoing intimate relationships and have had to look after aged parents’. You are an only child your whole life, not just as a child, and like children who lose or only have one parent, an adult only child often feels they have ‘lost’ or ‘lack’ something by not having had a sibling.
- Finally, the stigma that society puts on a parent of an only child is unconsciously and sometimes consciously experienced by the only child. They carry the so-called parental ‘selfishness’ as their own, often as a sense of shame.
So no, I do not think it is selfish to have ONE child. However we do live in a society which privileges the sibling experience. May be for good reason? – but how would I know – I am an only child, albeit adult – but I know it is a different experience not all good, but also not all bad. I am not alone in thinking this. So much research is ‘done to’ only children, but only when they are children, observed by ‘professionals’. My research is on the experience of being an only child through one’s life span from the perspective of that adult only child.
I recently interviewed a French woman who said she did not experience any social stigma having an only child in France, except within her family. (Despite that the French benefit system when she had one child meant one child did not count i.e. you were not considered a family if you only had one child and therefore you did not receive any form of child benefit or family allowance.) Having been brought up in a large extended family all she ever wanted was to have 5 or 6 children. She had one child in her early twenties but for a variety of reasons no more. However she has fabulous memories of her own large family, growing up surrounded by siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. A family reunion has always been her most longed for occasion, even now in middle age, and yet afterwards she often feels depressed because her family, and particularly her mother, sees her as ‘a loser’ who did not ‘accomplish’ what was expected. She has not ‘made it’ in the eyes of her family and for many years, until her late forties, she has carried this sense of shame and failure.
So I feel sorry that Caroline Jones experiences ‘bullying’ from people who think she should have another child; but at the same time I would prefer that she makes a lifestyle choice without coming out with the ‘new’ platitudes: that it is a myth only children are spoilt, or that it’s so much better for her child, Mia, to have all a parent’s attention, or that it’s better Mia does not have to learn to share or experience the rough and tumble of the world of sibling interaction as that might cause her mental health problems! Where is this research?
Much of the so called ‘evidence’ that only children do better at school, are more confident, more mature and self reliant is not well substantiated, and with regard to mental health I have seen no research that says only children have fewer health problems in fact the opposite! And any way Caroline, would it be so terrible to bring up a child outside of London and in a state school?
All my research mentioned above is published in Only Child Experience and Adulthood, 2008, Palgrave.