In a lecture in 1907, Granville Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association said, “Being an only child is a disease in itself.” Is it any wonder that parents of singletons are viewed with suspicion, and their offspring looked upon with pity even now? It’s hard to come back from an opening salvo like that.
Full disclosure: I’m one of three, and extremely close to both of my younger siblings. I’ve relied on them as friends and allies, confidants and co-conspirators. My husband also had a happy childhood with his younger brother, digging holes in the yard and canoeing through Florida wetlands.
So, when my husband and I decided to stop our family after our daughter Lucie was born, our collective families were surprised and a little disappointed.
Before our decision, acquaintances would ask when I would have my second. My mother gently prodded me during my daughter’s toddler years to determine whether Lucie would be a big sister. And, when I evinced ambivalence about more children, everyone from my dental hygienist to my father said, “You’ll want another.” But, after one of my closest friends argued that it was cruel (yes, cruel) to have just one child—She’ll be lonely! Who will commiserate with her about your crazy parenting? She’ll never learn how to get along with her peers! And, (rather morbidly), what will happen if you both die?—I realized I had a major PR problem on my hands.
My husband and I realized that what we wanted—what we needed—was a small family unit. We were happy with one and our family felt complete. But, beyond that there were practicalities that reinforced our decision.
We live in the Bay Area, and it’s expensive. Breathtakingly expensive. One child here was what we felt comfortable affording, despite the fact that it’s fairly unromantic to admit that family choices can be driven by economics. I have a career that I have nurtured since my mid-twenties, my husband is similarly motivated by academic work he began at 19. More children would have derailed us both, and to be frank, the brunt of the parenting would have landed on my husband. I also hated being pregnant. Like, really hated it. It didn’t occur to either of us that the choice to stop at one could be controversial. All of this seemed rational to us. Logical. And, we were content.
Despite the commentary during Lucie’s very young years, the shift from being a young family to being parents of an only child happened quietly and without our little unit thinking much more about it. But, as I met and spoke to other parents in one-child families—and there are a lot of them, particularly in cities, with numbers growing beyond 20% of all families—I noticed a special strain of parental insecurity appearing in response to the cultural current we had experienced when Lucie was younger.
Parents who chose to have one child often felt that they were letting their offspring down by not “giving” them a sibling. Will parents be a burden to their child as they age? If parents couldn’t have more, they found themselves wracked with guilt for their biological or economic limitations. All were worried that their singletons would be maladjusted, unable to form strong attachments with their peers and, of course, be selfish, with no evidence in the children right in front of them for such grievous character failings except his or her stature as an only child, as if Dr.
Hall was right, and being an only child truly was “a disease in itself.”
Any age-appropriate tantrum could be a sign that “my child will never learn to share,” and any expression of introversion meant “she’ll never make friends.” Everyone felt the stigma of being a parent who had “just” one child. We’re barely parents at all, right? It certainly meant we were self-involved adults, and most likely it meant we’d be rearing a self-involved child. It was, as my friend pointed out, cruel.
Out of a burgeoning sense of anger and paranoia, I dug into the question. Perhaps my blithe assumption that having one child was a legitimate choice was, in fact, an error from which my daughter would never recover. What if I was creating another Veruca Salt?
What I discovered was a growing body of research that not only finds no basis in reality for most of the stereotypes and assumptions, but, surprisingly, argues that only children are sometimes better off than their siblinged counterparts. Only children aren’t any more self-involved than anyone else, it turns out. Small people don’t need siblings to help them learn interpersonal skills— friends and other peers do the job.
As Lauren Sandler notes in her wonderful book, One and Only: The Freedom of Having and Only Child and the Joy of Being One, “Their findings suggest that solitude is not synonymous with loneliness and often strengthens character. As one psychotherapist explained to me, only children tend to have stronger primary relationships with themselves. An Ohio State survey of more than 13,000 children found that only children had as many friends as anyone else.”
Even more heartening, onlies are confident and high achievers. Sandler points out that “the differences between only children and those raised with siblings tend to be positive ones. Hundreds of studies in the 1980s found that only children had demonstrably higher intelligence and achievement; only children have also been found to have more self-esteem.”
Ultimately, like every parent, I want my daughter to fulfill her potential, embrace her independence and autonomy, and accept herself. I want our family to be a source of security and love—a gift that isn’t limited by the size of our tribe.
So, in the spirit of including her voice, as the only child of this story, I asked Lucie to share with me her three most and least favorite things about being a singleton. Here is her list:
You can’t fight with your siblings because you have none
You get all the love from your parents
You don’t need to share a room
You have to do all the chores, but if you had siblings you could split them up so you each have less chores
Sometimes you get bored and you want to play with someone
When you are sad and your parents are both busy
Ultimately, I’ve had very little regret about our small family. Our daughter is loved, and we, like all families, have joys and struggles. We travel, and are able to send her to a bilingual school because we are only footing the bill for one.
My husband and I have kept our career (mostly, kind of) on track. So, other parents of singletons: Let’s not beat ourselves up for not giving our lovely children some idealized version of a family, and let us instead celebrate families of every size and kind.