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

  • 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

    It's a conversation I have most weeks — if not most days. This time, it happens when my 2-year-old daughter and I are buying milk at the supermarket. The cashiers fawn over her pink cheeks and applaud when she twirls for them, and then I endure the usual dialogue.

    "Your first?"


    "Another one coming soon?"

    "Nope — it might be just this one."

    "You'll have more. You'll see."

    "At the moment, I'm not planning on it."

    "You wouldn't do that to your child. You'll see."

    I offer no retort, but if I did, I'd start by asking these young minimum-wage earners to consider the following: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average child in the U.S. costs his or her parents about $286,050 — before college. Those costs have actually risen during the recession. The milk I'm buying adds up to $50 a month, and we're pushing toilet training just to drop the cost of diapers — about $100 a month — from our monthly budget. It's a marvel to me these days that anyone can manage a second kid — forget about a third.

    And since I celebrated my 35th birthday, I have to ask myself not when but if. My parents asked themselves that question when I was my daughter's age and decided the answer was no. They wanted the experience of parenting but also their careers, the freedom to travel and the lower cost and urbane excitement of making a home in an apartment rather than a suburban house. Back then, their choice was rare, but if we too choose to stop at one child, my daughter will likely feel far less alone in her only status than I did.

    "The recession has dramatically reshaped women's childbearing desires," says Larry Finer, the director of domestic policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a leading reproductive-health research organization. The institute found that 64% of women polled said that with the economy the way it is, they couldn't afford to have a baby now. Forty-four percent said they plan to reduce or delay their childbearing — again, because of the economy. This happens during financial meltdowns: the Great Depression saw single-child families spike at 23% of all families, and that was back when onlies were still an anomaly. Since the early '60s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number, to about 1 in 5 — and that's from before the markets crashed. Birth control has quickly become one of the recession's few growth industries.

    Meanwhile, friends and relatives — not to mention supermarket cashiers, pastors and, I've found, strangers on the subway — continue to urge parents of only children to have another baby. There are certain time-honored reasons for having that baby: in many countries and communities, the mandate to be fruitful and multiply is a powerful religious directive. And family size can be dictated by biology as much as by psychology. But the entrenched aversion to stopping at one mainly amounts to a century-old public-relations issue. Single children are perceived as spoiled, selfish, solitary misfits. No parents want that for their kid. Since the 1970s, however, studies devoted to understanding the personality characteristics of only children have debunked that idea. I, for one, was happy without siblings. A few ex-boyfriends aside, people seem to think I turned out just fine. So why, at a time when so many parents worry about being able to support more than one, do we still worry that there's something wrong with just one? And what will it mean for future generations if more parents than ever before decide that one is enough?

    A Stereotype Is Born
    The image of the lonely only — or at least the legitimizing of that idea — was the work of one man, Granville Stanley Hall. About 120 years ago, Hall established one of the first American psychology-research labs and was a leader of the child-study movement. A national network of study groups called Hall Clubs existed to spread his teachings. But what he is most known for today is supervising the 1896 study "Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children," which described a series of only-child oddballs as permanent misfits. Hall — and every other fledgling psychologist — knew close to nothing about credible research practices. Yet for decades, academics and advice columnists alike disseminated his conclusion that an only child could not be expected to go through life with the same capacity for adjustment that children with siblings possessed. "Being an only child is a disease in itself," he claimed.

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