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Like most parents, my husband and I always tried to make perfect choices, from the seemingly small (the perfect diaper pail) to the potentially life-changing (deciding how many kids to have). The longer we had our one child, the more we felt she was all we needed, yet the old myths continued to worry us: Would she be lonely and spoiled? Were we being selfish by not giving her a sibling? Would the task of caring for us in our old age fall on her shoulders alone?
Thanks to delayed childbearing, environmental concerns, the current economic crisis and other factors, single-child families like ours are no longer the rarity they once were: According to Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey in 2011, an estimated 15 million U.S. households today have one child. Still, many parents who—whether by choice or necessity—are contemplating stopping at one continue to struggle with misconception-fueled confusion and guilt.
If you’re in this spot, here’s what the research and experts can tell you.
Is one really a lonely number?
Many parents feel they need to supply a sibling for their first child so that he or she will have a built-in friend. Not true, says social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., the “Singletons” blogger for Psychology Today and author of The Case for the Only Child (Heath Communications, Inc.). Newman cites two ohio State University studies demonstrating that while only children may have a very small social deficit in kindergarten, by middle school they have as many friends as their counterparts with siblings.
Only children have a vested interest in cultivating skills like sharing and compromise, Newman says. “they realize early on that they need their friends—their sibling substitutes—and that bad behavior won’t preserve those relationships,” she explains. Indeed, I’ve observed a strong diplomatic quality in my daughter that has allowed her to easily make and keep friends.
Spare the sibling, spoil the child?
It is true that singletons enjoy more access to parental attention and material resources than a child with siblings. at least partly as a result, they tend to be well-adjusted high achievers (see “an ‘onlies’ report card”). Studies have consistently found them to have not only greater cognitive abilities, but also higher levels of maturity and social sensitivity—not characteristics of a “spoiled” child. And rather than overindulging, many parents of an only child find it a relief in economically stressful times just to be able to provide necessities for the family.
Studies on birth order actually relegate feelings of entitlement and “spoiling” to the baby of the family. Psychologist Kevin Leman, Ph.D., author of The Birth Order Book (Revell), explains that because parents are often “taught out” when the last-born child arrives, they let him or her slide on chores or give in easily to his or her tantrums. These are the same parents who made every activity with their first-born (who, of course, began as an “only”) instructional. Laden with high parental expectations, the only (or first-born) child naturally wants to achieve and please.