Is it better for children to have siblings? (BBC 4 Today programme Aug 22nd)

by on August 23, 2013

in Bernice's Posts

Yesterday, I was asked my opinion, by a number of radio programmes. This was because of  Sky news presenter and father of six, Colin Brazier’s new book: “Sticking up for Siblings’; published yesterday by Civitas (Institute for Civil Society).

In fact I did a very brief interview for Radio 4 Today programme. (Unfortunately not one of my better interviews due to a 30 second delay feedback of my own voice made it impossible to think very clearly!)

The BBC news article: Is it better for children to have siblings? has a brief over-view of the book.

I was pleasantly surprised that the importance of sibling relationships was being advocated in Colin Brazier’s book. Similarly the economic argument  COTS (cost of a sibling) that the long term cost of a child is £250,000 is challenged by Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, bringing it down to a mere £150,000.

However Colin Brazier’s book has not been well received by parents of some onlies, who I suspect feel attacked by the suggestion that sibling are important for emotional and social learning. Once again we are given the ‘facts’ that say: ‘ there is no difference between only children and children with siblings’ and ‘only children do better at a school, are more intelligent, often popular, confident well-adjusted individuals achieving over their potential..etc.’ In other words the new stereotype that the only-child lobby uses to balance the negative one of the ‘lonely, selfish, maladjusted child’. How does replacing one stereotype for another get beyond stereotyping only-children? I was hoping to address this issue on the Today programme but as I only got 1 minute out of the 6 minutes allocated to the discussion – it did not happen!

My co-interviewee, journalist Tessa Dunlop, mother of an only, spoke strongly against the book. She was expecting to speak to Colin Brazier and  I was expecting to be speaking with Lauren Sandler so it was an odd switch around! Lauren Sandler unfortunately  was not available, and unlike Tessa is an only child with an only-child.  Whilst I have not agreed with some of what Lauren Sandler has written in her new book, I do know she is coming from a place of knowing the difference in experience when you are  brought up an only, to that of a person who has not.

Tessa Dunlop’s main argument centred upon saying that Brazier’s new book should not be taken seriously because she questions the political motive for a book published by Civitas. I don’t think she is against the idea of siblings but dislikes the pressure brought to bear on a parent of an only child to have another child. I know from my own experience as a researcher and therapist this expectation one ‘should’ have another child is very prevalent and part of the negative stereotype of the only-child. However I don’t think the positive stereotype is an effective way of countering the argument. Having one child, for many women, is simply a life-style choice. It is not always to do with economics – although this has become an ‘acceptable’ reason, as material resources are seen to be more important than psychological ones provided by a sibling. Or the latest argument is that the child is better off – mostly materially- by being an only.

Interestingly after Tessa Dunlop  expounded  that there were benefits to being an only child; when challenged to give one she was unable to do so! However she did tell us that her daughter benefitted as an only from a ‘verbally rich environment’,  ’high self-esteem’,  a ‘range of friends’ and more opportunities to be taken out than families with several children.  I think her decision is one of lifestyle, which is fine in my book, although she did seem rather angry, and did take up most of the time allocated,  perhaps she was disappointed I was not Colin Brazier!

So why do I think siblings are important?

This is what I was unable to say in the interview! Siblings are important for social and emotional development because of what I like to call the three ‘C’s': learning cooperation, dealing with conflict and  experiencing competition. Siblings usefully dilute the family dynamic of two parents, they provide a playmate, and filter parental attention – so not all of it is focused on one child whether it be positive or negative. This means the family is less likely to have enmeshment issues, and the child is allowed to be a child and not a ‘little adult’. They will not be  the sole carrier of all their parents hopes and expectations, or the only means by which a parent has their own unmet  needs for love and attention fulfilled. This would only have taken a minute!

  • Silvana

    I think that with the world population getting close to 10billions, to have only 1 child would be the better option: what would you do of psychological benefits, when there won’t be enough resources to meet the physical needs of everybody?

  • denedene

    Finally someone who sees the issues beyond money and education. I just wish there was a way to conduct research beyond self reported happiness tests, which honestly don’t make a lot of sense.

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