Having “Only” One Child Attracts Plenty of Flak

           Not long ago, a health club cohort, in a conversation with Cheryl, expressed a startling opinion. People want to have at least two children, she reasoned, because if something terrible should happen to one offspring (like an untimely death), at least parents can be comforted by their second child.

            Lauren Sandler, author of the recently released book, One and Only, would not agree. She made a measured decision to have just one child, and makes the case for one-child families being helpful to our already over-taxed planet and to the economy.  Sandler decided that to raise a happy kid, she needed to be a happy parent, which wouldn’t be the case if she were the mother of two.

Lauren Sandler's book created a stir

Lauren Sandler’s book, One and Only

           In an interview with Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s Today, Sandler mentioned that when she told other parents that she was stopping at one child, they said things like “Oh, you wouldn’t do that to your child.”

            So, here’s a woman who cooperated with the general societal imperative to procreate. She thought twice about how this child would impact an overly crowded world. She considered what was best for her marriage, herself, and for the child she would bring into this world. Yet, she has been judged negatively by other parents who clearly thought she should have more. So, why such flak?

            Writes Sandler: It all began with an 1896 study of a revered psychologist, Granville Stanley Hall who concluded in his study “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children” that “being an only child is a disease unto itself,” and that children without siblings are misfits. Never mind that Hall’s “studies” wouldn’t pass scientific muster these days; unbelievable though it is, his conclusions seem have persisted as valid for over a hundred years. They still perpetuate a cultural myth that people should have at least two children if not more.

            Enter Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin College of Education. Thirty years ago, she and colleague, Denise Polit, analyzed 115 studies of single children from 1925 onward. The studies from both the U.S. and Canada cut across race and class. They looked at the only child’s character, adjustment, achievement and intelligence. Falbo and Polit proved that an only child was no different from kids with siblings, “except they scored higher in measures of self-esteem and achievement.”

            Later, Falbo and Polit completed a second review of over two hundred additional personality studies. In all, they analyzed results from at least a hundred thousand subjects with the same results: Single children were no different than their peers who had siblings.

            In 1998, Bill McKibbon wrote Maybe One: A case for Smaller Families. He and his wife were concerned about the environment and McKibbon aimed to open this subject up for debate so people will consider how many children they make.  He wanted to move “population” from the abstract to the real. In the introduction to his book, McKibbon says about the decision whether to have offspring, “No single decision any of us will make will mean as much to our own lives or to the life of the planet.”

             Recent research bears out his words. A 2009 study published in Global Environmental Change, said that by having one fewer child, an American can prevent “20 times more carbon pollution” over an entire lifetime than by eco-friendly habits such as using fluorescent light bulbs, and driving 40-miles-per-gallon cars.

            Old customs (and G.S. Hall’s inaccurate conclusions) die hard. If people must have a biological child, making just one is second best to bearing none. For Earth’s sake, we must wake up and realize there already are Enough of Us.           




  1. Patster says:

    I am an only child born in New Zealand in the sixties. My parents copped a lot of flak for not giving me a sibling. I never wanted a sibling. Nobody in our little family wanted another child in it but family and friends were aghast. I had an awful teacher at primary school who singled me out for being an only child and would ask me what jobs I had done around the house to help my parents. Her reason for doing so was to ensure I was not spoiled. I lied. It was none of her business.

    As an adult I have been asked by other parents who were considering only have one child what it is like to be an only. I have only good things to say about it but those parents went on to have more children. Now I am nearly 50 and still considered odd for not having siblings. Actually even more odd as I have not had children myself.

    • Patster:
      Thanks for the comment. We toured New Zealand in March. Kiwis are the friendliest people we have ever met. Get a hold of your old teacher and tell her she single-handedly has ruined New Zealanders’ reputation (LOL).
      Are you still in NZ?

  2. I am the parent of an only child, now in her 20s. She’s a high achiever, very independent, and has always been so. She had plenty of friends to play with as a child, and she still does. In fact, she has a enviable number of friends she’s known since she was 8 or 9. I haven’t seen any down side to her being an “only.”

    In fact, siblings can be a huge liability. A recent NY Times piece, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/17/when-the-bully-is-a-sibling/?nl=health&emc=edit_hh_20130618
    discusses the tragedy of bullying among siblings.

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