I’ve written before about my wife’s and my decision to have only one child, and how the response is often that we’re denying him a sibling, or there’s an underlying assumption that my son’s going to be somehow off, mentally — overly self-involved, socially maladjusted, neurotic. (Of course, he may be, but that’s because of genetics and not only-child status!)
Over the past weekend, an article in The New York Times — “Only Children: Lonely and Selfish?” — went about debunking some of these myths. The author, Lauren Sandler, is an only child and mother of one, and the author of a forthcoming book titled One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.
Sandler describes how on psychological tests of character traits, like extroversion and cooperativeness, only children score equal to children with siblings. Nor are they going to be more lonely than children from large families. By developing stronger relationships with themselves and becoming comfortable with solitude, they may be less likely to experience loneliness. In fact, only children are statistically higher in intelligence and self-esteem perhaps because they receive more attention and support from their parents.
Given that about one in five American families now have just one child, this seems like a good time to question the misconceptions about only children and the dangers of raising a child without siblings. For one thing, one-child families make obvious sense in a time of diminishing resources. This may explain recent studies showing that parents who have one child tend to be happier.
I couldn’t agree more. Just as this is a moment of transformation for American dads, with our cultural stereotype of the good father moving from the distant layer-of-the-law and financial provider to a guy who is present in the day-to-day decision making of the family and emotionally in touch with his partner and children, who may not provide as much money, but provides nurturing care; so too, I think, are we seeing a change in what defines a family. This is nothing new. Before the heteronormative nuclear family — with mother, father, two kids and maybe one pet — there was the large, extended family full of kids and multiple generations living nearby or under the same roof.
These big families may have once been more the norm simply because infant and child mortality rates were high, meaning that a family wouldn’t want to put all of its genetic eggs in one basket, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. Or because kids were expected, as young adults, to help contribute financially — the length of childhood was shorter, with kids entering the factory or working on a farm in their early teens, rather than spending decades in higher education and states of extended adolescence. And of course people had sex back in the day just like they do now, but without the miracles of contraception we use to control our procreation, pregnancy was likelier to happen.
Nowadays, we have less of a genetic need to reproduce. Our planet’s population is doing pretty well — too well, many would argue. So having kids, while important, is also a bit of a luxury. There are plenty of people who would rather not have kids, and there’s no stigma, I think, to opting out. Just like there’s nothing naturally better about a larger family. Or one where a mother stays home. Or one with a mother who is a woman and a father who is a man, as opposed to a family of same-sex caregivers, or transgendered ones.
The stigma about only children is a part of this transformation, and work like Sandler’s will help change our understanding of what makes a good family. It’s science, people, anecdotes and data tearing down false assumptions. There’s nothing inherently better or worse about only children. To quote one of my son’s favorite songs on Free to Be Me and You, “a person’s a person.” Whether they have a sibling or siblings or not.