The Only Child: Debunking the Myths

Only children are supposed to be spoiled, selfish and lonely. In fact they're just fine — and on the rise, as more parents choose against having multiple children

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Andrea Stern for TIME

Madelyn Vickmark, 21 months, with her dad Bryce at home in Boston. Her mother Rochelle Rosen runs an educational-consulting firm

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But if only children do get it all, doesn't that mean there's truth to the stereotype that they're overindulged? In Austin, I seek out the counseling practice of psychologist Carl Pickhardt, who meets with patients in his office on the ground floor of a Victorian house. The low lamplight — and Kleenex box on his coffee table — renders an inversion of Falbo's fluorescent-lit classroom. Pickhardt, author of The Future of Your Only Child, is neither cheerleading nor hectoring, as participants in the stratified conversation about only children tend to be. His soft-voiced presence is a reminder that clinical sampling can take us only so far, that human behavior cannot be entirely reduced to numbers on a questionnaire.

"There's no question that only children are highly indulged and highly protected," he tells me. But that doesn't mean the stereotype is true, he says, at least not based on his four decades of seeing singletons — both kids and adults — unburden themselves in his office. "You've been given more attention and nurturing to develop yourself. But that's not the same thing as being selfish. On balance, that level of parental involvement is a good thing. All that attention is the energy for your self-esteem and achievement." But, he adds, "everything is double-edged. And everything is formative."

In a suburb outside Austin, Zoe and Don Mullican live with their 9-year-old daughter Sophia in a rented house with a red pickup parked outside. The beige sectional couch in the family room was a free Craigslist find; folding mesh chairs make up the outdoor furniture in the yard. On the tailgate of their truck is a purple sticker that bears the name of the private Austin Waldorf School, which Sophia attends. Zoe recently lost her job as an executive assistant in a law firm, and the new gig she found is only part time, resulting in a significant cut in their family income. (Don works as a civil engineer.) They've scaled back on "everything from gas to groceries to clothing," Zoe says, but Sophia's attendance at her school is nonnegotiable. As is her status as an only child. "We have such limited resources financially, and we want to give one person the best we could give," Zoe tells me over Don's home-brewed beer at a backyard barbecue.

Researchers have crunched the numbers from years of standardized tests like the National Merit Scholarship exam to measure verbal and mathematical abilities. In each category, only children performed better than children from larger families. Furthermore, they're expected to. Falbo tells her class that parents have significantly higher expectations of academic achievement and attainment when they have just one kid. But Pickhardt notes that parental expectations are merely part of the pressure only children can feel. Much of it is self-imposed, he says, because of their notions of themselves as performing at a peer level with their parents. It's the other edge of all that adult-icizing: pressure and responsibility usually accompany success, and neither feels much like childhood.

But Zoe doesn't sound that worried about it as we talk over the sound of Sophia belting out High School Musical karaoke upstairs in her room with two other singleton friends. Zoe was an only child herself until she was a teenager; so was her oldest friend, whose only child's voice joins the chorus of Vanessa Hudgens impersonators. When Sophia and her friends come downstairs for grilled turkey burgers, Sophia expresses dismay that I haven't heard of the band Ghostland Observatory, which she saw perform at Austin City Limits with her parents last year. "Mom, you gotta play it for her!" she says. "They're one of our favorite bands," the 9-year-old tells me. Zoe puts on the album, sits down next to Sophia and gives her a hug. "Isn't this great?" they say together. To my only-child eyes, their dynamic looks ideal, but I can hear the nay-saying voices in my head wondering if this is the fullest form of childhood.

Will It Make Us Happier?
As parents, we tend to ask ourselves two questions when we talk with our partners about having more children. First, will it make our kid happier? And then, will it make us happier?

When University of Pennsylvania demography professor Samuel Preston was conducting research to help him predict the future of fertility, he told me the discovery that surprised him most was that parents felt so madly in love with their first child, they wanted a second. That's an unusual finding. Talk to parents and you'll often hear that they opt to have another because they think it will be better for the child they already have. Not many say they do it for themselves, no matter how much they may love the experience of parenting.

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