Your One and Only

More and more families are having just one baby, yet 'only child' stereotypes persist. Here's what the experts say.

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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.

What about elder care?

If you think you should have more than one child to care for you when you're old, forget about it: there are no guarantees that adult children will equally share the burden. In fact, one child (in our case, my older sister) typically shoulders it anyway, and elder care can be a source of conflict instead of a comfort. Research commissioned by the Home Instead Senior Care etwork found that 46 percent of family caregivers say their sibling relationships deteriorated because of their siblings' unwillingness to share care.

Making the choice

For most people, the family size "decision" happens over time. It's based partly on reason, partly on personal history and usually topped off by a large portion of fate. Newman counsels parents who are wrestling with how many children to have to resist feeling pressured and instead ask themselves, "What kind of lifestyle do I want for me and my child? and what can I realistically handle?"

In our case, finances were tight after our daughter was born, because I had scaled back work and my husband changed careers. and I am also a member of the growing Sandwich generation, people who are simultaneously facing child care and elder care responsibilities. I cannot forget the many harried shopping trips during which I found myself chasing my toddler daughter in one direction as my alzheimer's-stricken dad wandered off in another.

Our daughter is 8 years old now and, for us, the only-child myths have proved to be just that. She even balks at the idea of having a sibling. When a singleton friend announced that his family was adopting, she expressed concerns that we, too, might want to adopt. In reassuring her, I put my own lingering worries to rest. Every family, I told her, has to be just the right size for them, and she is, in fact, just enough for us.

Psychologist Kevin Leman, Ph.D., author of The Birth Order Book (Revell), maintains that only children share some general characteristics, including the following:

Strengths

  • Good decision-maker
  • Thorough and organized
  • Ambitious and enterprising goal-setters
  • Academically minded and good problem-solvers

Weaknesses

  • Can be self-centered if parents aren't careful
  • May be inflexible and hard to satisfy
  • Not happy with surprises
  • Can be overly serious, driven or logical

Did you know? The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average annual spending on one child in 2010 was $13,830, an increase of $4,000 since 2000.

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