Is Lauren Sandler right to say one-child families are happier?

by on June 16, 2013

in Bernice's Articles

Barbara MacMahon, Times June 15th

Well this old chestnut returns again!

  • Barbara MacMahon’s article in the Times describes the controversy surrounding Lauren Sandlers new book “One and Only — the Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One. Lauren Sandler has been surprised by the level of criticism she has received on her opinion from various people, that only children are not disadvantaged, specifically British author Zadie Smith. Apparently, Louise Doughty is also very scathing about Lauren Sandlers research (Guardian Friday 14 June 2013). Having been interviewed by Lauren when she was researching her book our dialogue on the only child experience seems a little different to what is being stated here by Barbara MacMahon:

“In her book Sandler debunks many of these myths. Hundreds of studies, she says, show that being raised alone makes little difference to the person you turn out to be and that there can be some advantages in being a singleton. “Only children tend to have a very strong primary relationship with themselves and that solitude can be very strengthening,” she says. “Statistically, they also tend to be higher achieving and have higher intelligence.” Sandler, a journalist and broadcaster who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, spent three years researching the book and produces reams of evidence to show that single children turn out OK. Countless studies carried out in past decades, she says, have examined traits such as leadership, maturity, peer population, generosity, contentment and emotional stability and have found that only children do just as well as children with brothers and sisters. Singletons score higher in achievement, motivation and self-esteem. They do not score any differently on loneliness scales. They were not shown to be more narcissistic than siblings.

I have not read her book so I cannot comment on what she has written or even if she has quoted any of my research. However I do keep all my notes from interviews and having read the article I was surprised that I had received a very different sense of Lauren’s experience of growing up an only child to the one she appears to be promoting in her new book. Lauren talked to me about the loss of growing up as an only, was missing out on childhood as there was an expectation of her being the ‘little adult’. She mentioned conflict with her parents was difficult and although they were not over-nurturing they also disliked challenge. There was both, she said, an acknowledgment of being expected to be an adult when you are not one and that could be hard to manage.

The article states that the popular view of only children that Lauren Sandler debunks in her book is:

“Only children, through no fault of their own, are likely to be a little weird. They miss out on the rough and tumble of family life. They become little emperors.”

Interestingly in her interview with me, when she spoke about her potentially only-child characteristics, she very candidly described herself as ‘opinionated, outspoken, pisses people off, rigid, argumentative, sticks to her guns, intense, does not feel others ‘get’ her although she does not know why’ (which of course is what Barbara MacMahon’s article is partly about!). Perhaps this could be considered part of her statement of being a ‘little weird’ to some? Perhaps not overly socialised in the sibling sense? A slight touch of the ‘little emperors’?

She also described herself as feeling both ‘lonely’ and ‘outside’ although internally okay. She is happy to be on her own and has a good relationship with herself even though she does not always feel really ‘seen’ or ‘known’ by others. What I found interesting at the time I interviewed her was how common this experience is of only child adults, and of course’ as I always state: whilst not unique to them it is very much part of the matrix of experience that only children appear to inherit and carry into adulthood from their childhood.

However the point I want to make here:  Why is there this continual need to advocate only child experience as either primarily all good or all bad? If Lauren Sandler feels it is best for her to have only one child, and many only children feel that way, especially as they have never had to cope and perhaps feel unable to deal with the sibling experience – that is probably a good decision for her family as a life style choice. No childhood experience is impossible to transcend and whilst I am not sure this article or her book reveals the less than positive side of only child experience which she herself knows, the main thing I want to promote is that we all need to be cognisant of the challenges being an only child may bring and their probable effects in adulthood.

People may choose to have one child but hopefully they do it for better reasons than those based on the positive stereotype that attempts to say only children are no different at best, or superior to, those with siblings! There is equally valid research that validates both directions. I also question the view that it is even a good experience for a child to receive all the attention, all the aspirations of parents and achieve higher results and become successful in everything they do which is expounded by the pro–only child lobby. Surely this places extreme pressure on the child, not to say a sense of engulfment and enmeshment with the parents’ own ideals and expectations. I do agree with Lauren Sandler that parents also need to have a life separate from children so they do not live their lives through their children, which appears more and more prevalent. However let us please get away from the idea we have to justify these choices and idealise one above the other!

  • MsJ93

    Great post!!

    I also find it interesting that a lot of these “pro-Only child” articles and books are written from the parental perspective rather than the child’s perspective, which is of concern to me. Sure, the parents may see having one as a good idea, but the child may not think so. I know my parents had absolutely no problem having just one, but I think they should’ve had more. I feel like I have no sense of family, have difficulty keeping friends and socializing, and just letting go and having fun because of my single status. So the polarizing view that it’s all good or all bad is somewhat flawed. It just reinforces that having 2+ children is the norm because the same rhetoric doesn’t exist around raising multiple children. I’m waiting to see a book come out about “The future of your Two Children”. The topic doesn’t even come up.

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