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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If you comb the World Values Survey, you'll find religiosity and fertility go hand in hand, whether in more secular Europe or in more pious America. As much as family size is a deeply personal issue, for many people it is also a spiritual one. And as Samuel Preston writes in his 2008 paper "The Future of American Fertility," high fertility can beget high fertility: children who inherit their parents' religious beliefs inherit at least one of the reasons to have many children themselves. No wonder churches nationwide vied to book Jon and Kate Gosselin (predivorce) for guest spots in their pulpits. Evangelicals — the biggest share of their viewership — saw the Gosselins' brood as proof of pure piety.

Back when the mandate to be fruitful and multiply was first chiseled in stone, there was a true impetus behind the idea. It was pretty elementary evolutionary psychology: the more you bred, the more likely your line was to survive. Large families were social networks and insurance policies. More kids meant more helping hands, more productivity, more comfort. In much of the world, that is still the case.

Most American families aren't of biblical proportions any longer, but a plurality of adults (46%) say two children is the ideal number, according to a 2010 Pew survey on American motherhood. Only 3% said one child was ideal — the same number that said zero. But Kohler says his happiness study contributes to a consensus that a metamorphosis is afoot. "If people feel they have to give in to these social expectations to have more children, then they might have another child for reasons other than their own happiness," he told me. "But as the acceptability of one-child families increases over time, there's an absence of these pressures to have more children — and so people don't."

Falbo has observed that in some urban areas in China where the one-child policy has been relaxed and permission has been given to have more than one child, families still choose to have only one — largely because of economic uncertainty. And that's not just an Asian phenomenon. A paper by Joshua Goldstein, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, made a stir at population conferences: he presented research on how the next generation of German and Austrian parents will be the first in Europe to see only children as more common.

Ascent of the Onlies?
Goldstein's paper is just one of many exacerbating angst about the current low-fertility "crisis" that has European economists and policy wonks in a panic. In the early 1960s, Europe represented 20% of the world's population. About a century later, those numbers are projected to drop to about 7.5%, despite the rise in minority and immigrant birthrates. Between now and 2030, demographers forecast the E.U. will have lost 13 million — or almost 4% — of people ages 15 to 64. Meanwhile, the number of people over 65 will increase by more than 40%. On a continent where the fertility rate is well below 2, these questions arise: Who will make up the workforce? Who will care for the disproportionate number of elderly citizens?

The latter is a question felt even more acutely on a personal level — particularly in the microcosm of the single-child family. A 2001 study found that one of the most consistent self-perceived challenges for only children was concern about being the sole caretaker for aging parents (including feelings of anxiety about being the sole survivor in the family once their parents died). My parents address my unspoken anxiety with monthly payments into a long-term health care insurance plan. But there are limits to what can be managed by logistics, even for families with the resources to plan ahead. Like many only children, I've lined up emotional and practical support — in my case, my spouse. My husband is like a son to my parents. He will be the first to spoon pureed food into my mother's mouth, like he did for my grandmother, or help my father in the bathroom, like he did for my grandfather. And yet I know my parents are not his. I know it's not the same.

Of course, having siblings is no guarantee that the burden of elder care will be shared equally or even shared at all. But imagining this emotionally fraught inevitability impels many people I know to have more kids, especially if they can afford them. (As one Park Avenue obstetrician told me, in her practice "three is the new black.")

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