Solitary refinement: by Anna Sansom

by on January 30, 2013

in Articles

Here is an interesting article by Anna Sansom - Published in Viewpoint magazine November 2012 

More and more parents in the west are choosing to have just one child.

Will this siblingless society share the difficulties that have arisen from the policy in China?

As an only child herself, Eve Bitoun – a French actress in her late 30s – is particularly conscious of how she is single-handedly bringing up her three-year-old only son, Richard. ‘I’m aware that you have to teach your child to share, because they receive what two or three children would receive,’ she says. ‘So they have to be able to give more. I also want to try to help my son avoid the same mistake of taking on the burden of a parent’s problems. Sometimes you feel responsible and guilty very young and this hampers your development.’

Asked if she wishes that she had a sibling, Bitoun replies, ‘I didn’t regret it so much because I would invent games, and other children would join me and I would become part of a group. The older I grew, the more I realised that it wasn’t such a trauma to be an only child, because I met people who had brothers and sisters who were their greatest enemy, and people can be torn apart by arguments about sharing their parents’ inheritance.’

Such issues are familiar to psychologists who specialise in counselling only children and their parents. ‘When parents have a single child, there’s a unique set of dynamics: that is the first and last child of one, so you’ve got high-pressure parenting because the parents want to get it right and are very deliberate in their decision-making,’ says Carl Pickhardt, an American psychologist and the author of The Future of Your Only Child. ‘The child identifies with their parents and is “adultised” early, and becomes very conscientious and empowered. Parents make a high investment and expect a high return. The kid feels that, so there are a lot of obligation issues.’

The proportion of families in the west with only one child is rising in reflection of the downturn in economies. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, in Greece and Japan the fertility rate is 1.39 children; in Italy and Germany, it’s 1.40 and 1.41 respectively; in Spain and Portugal, it’s 1.48 and 1.51; and in the UK, the US and France, it’s 1.9, 2.06 and 2.08. The US Census Bureau in 2010 found that of the 78.6 million

families in the US, 15 million families, or 19.1% of the total, had only one child.

‘Today, having an only child is often a lifestyle choice because people are trying to do many more things in their lives,’ says Bernice Sorensen, a British psychologist and author of Only-Child Experience and Adulthood. ‘Women are working far more, and there’s this sense that if you have one child you might feel that you can carry on working more easily than if you have two children.’

Susan Newman, an American psychologist, agrees. ‘Women are staying in education longer, starting families later, and that leads to infertility issues pre- venting them from having more children. But it is indeed a lifestyle choice, particu- larly because the cost of raising children has rocketed.’

For some parents, being able to provide properly for one child seems preferable to struggling to provide for several. Some people also admit that they enjoy the greater independence that having one child offers. ‘I really wanted to be a mother and I also wanted to be able to continue creating – making films and writing books; going on dates with my husband; and see- ing my friends,’ says Michelle Cove, whose film One and Only: Rise of the New Amer- ican Family Type is in production. ‘Also, I was 35 when I had my daughter and those first couple of years were exhausting. I didn’t feel up for going through that again with a second child.’

Cove explains that her motivation for making her movie is to ‘debunk some of the common stereotypes’ about only children. ‘Many people still think only children are spoilt and bratty or socially awkward, and this is just not the case,’ she asserts. ‘Kids today have so many play-dates and activities that they learn how to share and socialise quite young.’

Yet Cendrillon Bélanger, a 40-year- old artist born in Montréal and living in Paris, has unhappy memories of growing up siblingless. ‘You’re spoilt yet feel fragile because they expect everything from you,’ she insists. ‘I couldn’t have any secrets that I could share with somebody else. My par- ents divorced when I was young, and when I was face-to-face with my mother there was nobody to make a divergence with or to lean on. Yes, I was spoilt. Yes, we did things and travelled. And yes, I never had to have hand-me-down clothes. But psy- chologically it was very, very hard. Home was a nightmare.’

According to Simone Chen, the deputy editor of Noblesse, a monthly luxury lifestyle magazine published in Shanghai, the negative impact on society of China’s one-child policy is now being revealed. China introduced its controversial policy

in 1978 to control population figures, although the country is now allowing couples that are both single children to have two children and its fertility rate has slowly increased to 1.55 children.

‘It’s a very complicated issue as some of the impact will only be seen when the people who were born in the 1980s or 1990s get older,’ says Chen, who is a single child herself. ‘But most single kids are re- garded as being very spoilt today, as having no teamwork spirit and having communi- cation problems. Also, some people think it will be very difficult for those who were born during the time when the govern- ment was promoting the policy to under- take family responsibility. A couple will have to take care of four old people.’

So what is the impact of a rising number of only children in the west likely to be? ‘In larger countries, like the US, we still have a lot of families having many children so, in terms of the workforce, it’s going to take many decades to feel the strain,’ says Newman. Asked whether she thinks siblingless adults have a leaning to a particular kind of job, she replies, ‘Only children will be like other children – there will be leaders among them just as there are leaders among children who have two or three brothers or sisters.’

By contrast, Pickhardt believes that ‘only children tend to be very cautious. Most of the adult only-child clients I’ve

seen have not chosen to be entrepreneurs but to work in an organisational setting or as an independent professional, like a lawyer, an accountant or a doctor.’

Inès Haym, a 22-year-old art student in France, notes that only children experience competition differently from those with siblings. ‘We compare ourselves to our peers, so it’s not the same as sibling rivalry. On that level, it’s less traumatising to be an only child.’ Although she grew up at ease in adult company, Haym feels that she missed out on a sibling relationship. ‘When there are problems in life or when something happens in the family, it’s easier if you have a brother or a sister.’

Another consideration is what kind of consumers siblingless adults are likely to become. ‘Because they have been given as much as their parents can afford and because there’s been nobody else to give things to, only children probably have a pretty good consumer appetite,’ Pickhardt speculates. Certainly Bélanger concedes that her spending patterns echo the advantages she enjoyed growing up:

‘When I have a bit of money, I spend it on travel and a nice pair of shoes. I like going to restaurants because my mother, worked at home and we went to out to dinner every evening. And that’s something that’s stayed with me.’

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