I can’t over-emphasize how important reading about only children was for me. It was really only when I started to read about the subject that I truly felt that I wasn’t potentially creating a ticking time-bomb of unhappiness in leaving W sibling-free! The first book I read was Lauren Sandler’s wonderful One and Only along with a couple of excellent books by Susan Newman (Parenting an Only Child & The Case for the Only Child), plus a whole load of other articles. I have attempted to pull together some of the many myriad and complex strands of information and share them below in the hope that it will prove to be of interest and to help to spread the word that choosing to/not having a second child doesn’t a) make you a horrible, selfish person or b) make your child horrible and selfish either.
How did the bad rep start?
The blame can be placed quite squarely at the feet of one Granville Stanley Hall. Hall was one of the founders of the late 19th Century child-study movement and he was responsible for supervising the 1896 study Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children. The fact that only children, as a category, were included in this study speaks volumes, even before the findings were published, about the perceptions that so-called child experts held pre-research about ‘Onlies’.
Not surprisingly, the resultant findings of this study condemned this group as it was claimed that ‘being an only child is a disease in itself’ and only children were described as being permanent misfits. Even though these (poorly researched) conclusions would have been given no credibility at all today they were unfortunately disseminated to the general public through a national network of study groups called Hall Clubs which existed to spread his teachings. His belief that only children lacked the same capacity for adjustment as those with siblings became widespread and believed not just by ordinary folk but other academics too. These findings were then given further credence in the 1920s by an Austrian, Alfred Adler who argued that because only children never experienced being ‘dethroned’ they live in a perpetual state of egocentricity and he wrote that ‘the only child has difficulties with every independent activity and sooner or later they become useless in life.’ Harsh words indeed – the damage was done.
Don’t believe the hype!
Even though these conclusions have been rigorously and consistently replaced and updated over the years with countless other pieces of research proving that only children are almost indistinguishable from those with siblings, Hall and Adler’s negative perceptions of only children trickled into public consciousness, where they still remain today. As Lauren Sandler quotes in One and Only, ‘over-privileged, asocial, royally autonomous…..self-centered, aloof and overly intellectual’, is the culturally perceived ‘unchallengeable given’ of the only child, according to sociologist Judith Blake in her 1989 book Family Size and Achievement, which attempted to investigate and breakdown the stereotype. And yet the negative hype just won’t go away even though the truth of the matter is that only kids are more maligned than maladjusted (Kenneth Terhune, 1975, A Review of the Actual and Expected Consequences of Family Size). Indeed, Dr Toni Falbo (an only child herself and a mother of one), a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading researcher in the field of only child studies says that the words ‘Lonely. Selfish. Maladjusted’ are the ones that most accurately portray people’s image of only children.
However, as more and more families stop at just one child, for whatever reason, it is becoming increasingly important to understand the facts and dismiss the myths about only children and family size. Hall’s study took place in 1896 and Adler’s in the 1920’s and yet in 1928 findings from some research by Norman Fenton (who was specifically testing Hall’s hypothesis) were published in The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology. Fenton had asked teachers to gather data about their students and in this study only children were actually found to test better in terms of ‘generosity’ and ‘sociability’ and were also more likely to be truthful. Not only that, but they also showed greater intelligence, initiative, leadership abilities, and self-assuredness. Other research and articles also supported the only child, for example an article in 1942 in The New York Times entitled Kind Words for the ‘Only’ Child in which Hall’s assertions were again challenged and disproven.
Dr Toni Falbo and her colleague Denise Polit conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies of only children from 1925 onwards and concluded that only children aren’t measurably different from those with siblings apart from scoring higher in intelligence and achievement. They later conducted a second quantitative review of more than 200 personality studies which by and large showed that only children were again indistinguishable (interestingly only children scored no higher on loneliness than those with siblings). In other research studies, when only children were distinguishable, it was for positive things, with only children having higher self-esteem, being more successful academically, more motivated and finding it easier to make friends. It is evident that most of the existing cultural stereotypes that surround only children are not only false but negative too which not surprisingly has a detrimental impact. Researcher, Bernice Sorensen conducted qualitative research and found that as only children age they become more aware of the negative stereotypes of only children. As Judith Blake in Family Size and Achievement says ‘the belief that being an only child is a significant handicap appears to be so generally accepted that academic psychologists suggest it is a “cultural truism”, despite the copious research to the contrary.’
Even though only children were found to be gregarious and with fewer behavioural problems, as Sandler say’s ‘no one listened’ and many people still aren’t listening today. Perhaps this is because a story shrouded in negativity is simply more interesting and memorable than a positive one, but I certainly know many a Mum who has said she wanted a second child (or her husband did/does), because she/he didn’t want their first born to be an only child. These perceptions, whether we like it or not, are still mainstream and widespread today with many people not seeing a family of three as a proper family but there is a bit of a sea-change afoot. Articles are increasing being published citing a fuller body of research and with a much more positive bent. Hopefully soon, more people will come to recognise that perhaps De La Soul was right and three really is the magic number.
I only have one child, therefore I must be a selfish b***h, right? Wrong!
The two-child family of the fifties and sixties largely remains the model of family size today even though many women now work with the resulting pressures and juggling that this entails. But, due in part to the existence of the stereotypes surrounding only children, some parents will go on to have a second child, largely to prevent their first born from becoming an only child, rather than because they necessarily actively want a second child. Indeed, Sandler quite rightly suggests that we ‘need to be more assertive in questioning why exactly we believe our children need siblings.’ If, as a large body of recent research has found, there is no major difference between children with siblings and children without (apart from a slight advantage when it comes to academic achievement, motivation and self-esteem) then there appears to be very little point in having a second child, unless you want one! A 1955 research study by Lois Pratt and P.K. Whipton found that “The norm may encourage couples to have a second child who, on their low level liking for children, would be inclined to have only one child” (parents were asked to say on a scale of ‘very much’, ‘much’, ‘some’ or ‘little’, how much they liked their child).
Since the 1970’s social scientists have said that singletons offer the pleasures and experience of being a parent without the additional time, stress, expense and exhaustion that additional children add. Hans-Peter Kohler, a population sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania found that in his analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. In Just the Right Size: A Guide to Family Size Planning by Denise Polit-O’Hara and Judith Berman, they say that ‘parents are motivated to have a first child to gain the psychological benefits of parenthood, but are motivated to have a second child primarily for the sake of their first-born child.’ Interestingly, another reason why some couples go on to have an additional child is the gender of their first. Susan Newman writes ‘One would think that, because expectations for girls are as high as they are for boys in our current society, people would be indifferent to the gender of their children. Yet, as in the past, couples are more likely to go for a second if the first is female.’
Yet having a brother or sister (or not) is such a small part of what defines and makes a family and also of what defines or makes a personality. Parents who feel guilty about not having another child are understandably more likely to have a child who sees it as a problem when in actuality as Dr Helen Fisher PhD, author of The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behaviour, says the ‘only child is a common incident in human family life that has probably been going on forever’. She describes how in hunting and gathering societies children were born four-five years apart and only one-two were expected to survive. Once they reached the age of around five, they would be integrated into the wider community. The mother would then go on to have another child which would largely be reared on their own (some statisticians include children raised until the age of seven on their own, as Onlies).
Today there is such a lot of judgement and politics surrounding mothers and motherhood. If you stay at home, you are judged for not having a career. If you work, certainly full time, you are judged for not putting your children first. If you have one child you are judged, for being selfish and not giving your child a sibling they so obviously need….. However, Sandler suggests that ‘someone needs to be the scapegoat for the disappointments of the plentiful nuclear family: parenting more than one kid is simply too hard to not be supported by some dogma that it’s for a higher good, for the children.’ Sandler goes on to quote a British researcher called Ann Laybourn who writes that ‘It is obviously not very cheering to believe that these sacrifices have been in vain, and that only children whose parents have had it easier have turned out all right.’
Whilst a lot of research has focused on the only child and fundamentally assured us that that we are now able to walk off happily into the sunset, secure in the knowledge that an only child can be, and usually is, a well-balanced child (or as well-balanced certainly as the next child despite what the naysayers think), there also exists the stigma of the selfish parent. With the age of first-time mothers rising, delayed motherhood often means you will only have one child and today, anything other than the cultural norm of two kids is a strong opinion – and that is if it was even a choice of course. It doesn’t mean you don’t like your child, it doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy being a Mum. It is complicated and couples will choose to stop at one for many different reasons.
For me, when I was younger, having children never crossed my mind. I dreamt about meeting my future husband and having a lovely wedding but in the main part children were largely irritating and noisy! Once I had then met and married my husband, I still didn’t give children a lot of thought. I was never maternal but never questioned the cultural norm and just assumed I would get broody one day and want two children. My husband wanted to start a family, so we tried, and tried, and tried and in a strange way it was probably the best thing that could have happened as by the end I was desperate for a child and mentally and physically ready for all the sacrifices that that entails. But, even though my son is the most important thing in my life, it doesn’t follow that I want another one. He has turned my husband and me from two to three and made us a family. Small is sweet and I am certain I will be all the happier for it with more time for my husband, myself, friends and a career. I don’t want a child-centric house where we all can’t play an equal part. And I don’t want to go back. I look at friends with babies and shudder at what I enjoyed doing first time round as I don’t have the energy or inclination at my age to do it again and I don’t think that makes me selfish, I think that makes me sensible.
I also feel no guilt towards my son about the decision to stop at one child, I am so confident it is the right one for us as a family and as Susan Newman says, ‘there are a lot of misconceptions about the only child’s supposed wish for a sibling. When they have friends nearby, most only children don’t think about it and few dwell on the subject.’ She goes on to say that the ‘choice to have one is increasingly a very determined, rational one’ and if a child feels loved and secure it just doesn’t matter. She also says that ‘the reasons why so many people are having one child are tightly intertwined with their choices about parenting and lifestyles. It’s not self-indulgence, but rational thinking and concern that causes more and more people to decide one is best for them.’ In her book Parenting an Only Child she quotes Dr Sanford J Matthews who writes in The Motherhood Maze that ‘when you slip into a secondary spot in your own life, subordinate to the life of your baby, you can never receive enough emotional feedback to keep you adult and vital….The women I know who do the best job of mothering are those who are involved in themselves first.’
A Brave New World
A number of reasons are cited for the increase in one child families with two of the major factors being the economy (many of us simply can’t afford larger families and in times of recession, people generally have less children e.g. in the Great Depression single-child families made up 23% of the population) and falling fertility rates; older women are more likely to stop at one child. Add to this increasing divorce rates – between 1972-2007 the number of mothers living alone with one child went up from 2 to 7% and worldwide around 25% of divorces occur with only one dependent child as there is a pattern of people divorcing after around 4 years of marriage – along with more working women and women who want an adulthood that isn’t defined by motherhood and you can appreciate why, though still a minority, the number of only children is on the rise.
As we put off becoming parents, the contrast between life as it was pre-child and life post is even more dramatic and this understandably takes more time to adjust to. As Dr Jean Twenge says you know what you are missing out on; you lose control over your life and it’s ‘an acute shock, and many people never get over it’. Before children your life is totally adult-centred where you enjoy adult company and pursuits and as soon as you have children you are expected to spend the majority of your free time doing child-focused activities which can, by and large, be quite dull. Then you need to figure in all those Mums who give up work on top, as according to psychologist Matthew White at the University of Plymouth he found that women who felt they had sacrificed their work for their families displayed more depressive symptoms. Parenthood is essentially at odds with this liberated life/personal freedom that we have come to enjoy and expect, with more people going against the norm which Ron Lesthaeghe calls The Second Demographic Transition.
In 2013 the Office for National Statistics published figures that showed of the 7.7 million families in England with dependent children, 3.7 million have just the one (though these figures are rather misleading as it only shows dependent children living at home, so for example a couple might have older children but they would no longer qualify as being dependent or young couples who currently have one child but who will go on to have more). Even so, it reveals a distinct trend and a growing one too as while this means 47% of families currently have (as defined above) one child, this figure is expected to grow to 50% in a decade. The Office for National Statistics said that the problems of combining work and childcare have put families under pressure. Families with one child have gone up by just under 700,000 in 15 years and will become the majority (when polled in this way) within a decade. As having ‘just’ one child becomes less unusual, it is increasingly likely that more parents will choose to stop at one as there is less cultural pressure and expectation to produce two. The average number of children in the UK is currently 1.7 so let’s not forget that only children are no longer an anomaly or oddballs.
As women increasingly choose to establish their career before having children, those over the age of 35 are more likely to have one child. But whatever the reason, there still feels a need to have to justify your choice. Perhaps this is because women want to return to work – understandably as being a housewife has very little social status and not earning your own money results in not just a loss of independence but also to a degree, identity. This advanced age coupled with women’s desire or need to work is reshaping family size and parents are also less likely to have a second child if they encountered infertility or other barriers along the way. Indeed, John Mirowsky, sociology professor at the Population Center at University of Texas, says that the ideal age to give birth is between 34-40 as older mothers in general have more education and are more financially and emotionally secure.
It’s not just in England and the UK either that birth rates are falling. In the 1960’s Europe made up about 20% of the world’s population but that figure is now around 7.5%. Germany has a birth rate of 1.3, Austria 1.4, Spain 1.3 and Italy 1.2. In Japan and Korea fertility rates are also lower than the UK with less than 1.4 children per woman. In Ireland the birth rate has plummeted from 3.5 in 1975 to 1.8 and in the US one in five families now have the one child (in New York City more than 30% are only children). Aside from China (where a one child policy has infamously been in place since 1979), Japan has more only children than any other country in the world.
Given the acknowledged global stereotyping of only children it should come as no surprise that China has come under the microscope with regards to the behaviour of their only children, who have been dubbed worldwide as Little Emperors. Implicit in this terminology is the expectation (of course) that they are spoilt, selfish and difficult and yet recent studies do not support this. Interestingly a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 76% of Chinese people support the policy.
And let’s not forget that it’s a very different environment that our children find themselves in than that of previous generations of only children. With working Mums so much the norm, even if you are an only child you are socialised from a very early age at a nursery and for those Mums at home, gym crèches and playgroups are on hand. My son is very well versed at having to share and when he has his bad days (who doesn’t), some people will think – it’s because he’s an only child, rather than it’s because he is three (which those who don’t know he has no siblings will doubtless think). There is plenty of data to prove that only children are no more selfish than those with siblings and are frequently more self-possessed. Psychologist Steven Mellor found that ‘Onlies are generally more autonomous, have higher levels of aspiration and motivation, and have stronger identities.’ And when they don’t want to be on their own, as they get older there is now social media and the internet that can connect peers 24 hours a day.
The Happiness Quotient
To my mind motherhood is an extremely complex thing. Western women are largely raised to believe that they are entitled to an education and a career and yet raising a child/or children is frequently at odds with this. Feelings of guilt and sacrifice are common as women struggle to juggle the work/life balance and retain enough energy for other meaningful relationships in their life, which can lead to them feeling guilty or short changed and judged – by society and other parents.
For me personally, I don’t have the energy to go backwards. I feel I could have handled two children if I had had twins but I don’t want to go back and raise another baby. I found it fairly relentless and at times a little dull. I never found him dull – more justification! – but the hamster-wheel of feeding, changing, winding, sleeping isn’t the most scintillating, although that was offset by the novelty of it all, which just wouldn’t exist with another child. I am also horribly, dreadfully impatient and trying to manage the ever-permeable moods of a (admittedly charming, cheeky, beautiful, kind) toddler keeps my nerves in a bit of a jangle as I try to stay calm and not too strung out (more guilt), distract him and plan the constant merry-go-round of activities (when he is not at nursery) to keep us both entertained, which isn’t that easy I find when fundamentally what a 40 year old woman and a 2 year old child want to do are intrinsically different. I just suspect that realistically I would be a hideous person if I had another child (and one that I don’t even want anyway) as it would tip me over the edge and leave me as some sort of Mummy Monster.
Devon Corneal (in the Huffington Post Bye, Bye Baby blog below) say’s – ‘I think you should have a baby when your family feels incomplete without another person in it. I don’t think you should have a baby to create a playmate, to keep your firstborn in check or to make sure your child can ask someone else to pay for half of your nursing home bills.’ Kristin Maschka (see other link below) talks about the ‘cultural baggage’ that exists around the number of children you choose to have and that you need to ‘ask yourself what kind of life you want to create.’ Ultimately, does the thought of another child make you think you would be happier or more stressed out….
The reality for me is that I think another child would make me more stressed out as like many other modern mothers I attempt to juggle modern life in a (vain?) attempt to ‘have it all.’ But ultimately it simply boils down to how many children you either want to have or can have. My son has completed our family and I can see that there are many advantages to having one that I find hard to ignore. I am also not a big fan of noise or chaos and our house is a calm, happy, peaceful place. To my mind one child gives me the greatest chance of happiness possible as I experience the joys, frustrations and uniqueness that being a mother brings to my life but with the freedom to pursue other parts of it too.