Why you're wrong—and right—about having an only child

When it comes to only children, stereotypes and preconceived notions abound. Some are rubbish, but others are rooted in truth.

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“When we have a kid…” I’ll say, poking for reaction, and Angela, my wife, will add without a beat, “dzzzzzzzzzzz.” Put the sounds together and you get “Kids.” Plural. As in not an only child.

Our family-size jousting is interesting since Angela and I are both only children, and even come from a tribe of them. Angela’s mom is an only, as are two of my cousins on my dad’s side and one on my mom’s, and two of these cousins have onlies, too. All of us are exceedingly normal people, but this doesn’t change others’ gut reaction to our singleton nation. Humans are pack animals; “onlys” threaten groupthink. It also doesn’t change the fact my wife and I still don’t agree, despite our shared singleton experience. One child or multiple children?

Parents playing with their baby boy. 11 things not to say to parents of an only childTo even suggest one kid makes me strange. When asked about ideal family size, about half of people asked in North America say two children. Three is the next most popular answer, then four. Those who say no kids and those who say, like me, one, score basically the same: between 0 and 3 percent. Parents who have one kid have a lot of the same what-if doubts that come with never having a kid at all, but they also carry the added baggage of not bequeathing your child an apparently must-have sibling. These parents can also be forced to offer strangers vulnerability, like explaining their ideal family may have been limited by relationship breakdown, fertility issues, a death, a loss of a job or other pressures, to make the queries—”Are you having another?” “Aren’t you worried they’ll be lonely?” “Are they a little prince/princess?”—stop. 

The questions come in part from our pack’s deep, inaccurate wisdom, which tells us only children are selfish, maladjusted, hypersensitive, spoiled, aggressive, socially awkward and entitled. We reinforce this thinking with one another. Only children never had hand-me-downs or learned to share, we say. That kid in the grocery aisle who’s brattishly demanding chocolate and exploding with rage? Probably an only child, we think. And all this found expression in a 19th-century study, by G. Stanley Hall, which saw him conclude being a singleton was “a disease unto itself.” Read today, it just reads like a study in confirmation bias. 

Modern science suggests only children are exceedingly normal.

Studies that go back to the 1980s show there are no set differences between singletons and children with siblings, aside from onlies having stronger bonds with their parents. Newer research from China, a nation with several generations of only-child families (and some of the strongest anti-singleton sentiments I’ve experienced—I traveled there to write about the situation), suggests singletons do have differences, such as lower levels of tolerance, but also that they’re more creative and lateral thinkers. Other research that looked into brain-structure found onlies show increases in grey matter linked with creativity and imagination but less matter than average linked with emotional regulation.

Studies aren’t what people rely on when contemplating a family, though. We draw from our own family experiences, those woven into our DNA through our parents and grandparents, and fantasies. A boy and a girl would be just perfect, many think.

We also draw on the stigmas that don’t hold up to scrutiny but have nonetheless kept their truthiness. “It’s very hard to change them,” says Susan Newman, author of The Case for the Only Child and a social psychologist. “Think of any ethnic group—the stereotypes stick. You may not even know the source of who told you only children are spoiled and lonely, but as you hear the facts that they aren’t, you still go back to what you thought and your beliefs become even stronger the more they’re challenged.”

Newman raised four step-children in her first partnership, but in her second, she raised her biological only son, who was born in the 1980s. She says even she had to overcome doubts, despite writing the seminal book on the subject. “As the number of only children has increased and I did all this research for years, my view has definitely changed. I was a little concerned in the beginning that my son needed a direct sibling. Now I feel light years better about it. Only children don’t live up to the myths and stereotypes. What really counts is that the parents be happy and content with the decision they make, because that will affect how they raise that child.”

Let’s return to that in a second.

First, there are countless advantages for an only-child family. An only child often gets a home with less disruption and arguments—some studies suggest young siblings fight every 10 minutes – and most importantly, that increasingly vital tool of knowing how to be independent and alone.

For parents, the potential advantages are huge, but touchy subjects. As a man, I’ll just point to my own mom’s experience. She bucked other stereotypes in the 1970s, when she had me, to be a multidimensional woman. She was the breadwinner in my family and pursued her teaching career. Without her doing this, or in other words with me having a brother or a sister, I think my life and hers would have been limited in so many ways.

So what do we get right about only children, then?

I have to admit, it gets tough as you age. I’ve known since my pre-teens that I’ll be taking care of my parents one day. Depending on the relationship you have with your parents, this can be a blessing—no arguments with a sibling over care decisions—or feel like burden. Today I’m in the thick of it. My mom isn’t in good physical or mental health after the recent, sudden death of my dad. I catch myself fantasizing some days about having a sibling to help, but realize cousins, neighbours, family friends and Angela have all stepped in.

Another downside is that an only child can easily feel overwhelmed with familial intensity. Many siblings speak with jealousy about onlies getting all their parents’ love. I laugh at that. When parents are fighting, from my own experience growing up as an only in a dysfunctional house, it’s incredibly hard for a kid who relates with these people as near equals, and even in my case being a confidant and support for each of them. An only-child family is a triangle and requires each person work hard to make sure no one feels hurt, excluded or favourited. Get it wrong and it can be exhausting.

Why do I want Angela and I to have one, then? Honestly, I want a kid who grows up different, like her. She’s the woman her friends come to when they need someone conscientious. She’s always a leader, always excelling. She notices first when someone isn’t happy or needs help. I think these are definite only-child qualities and I want our kid to have them. But truthfully, I also want us to have options as making enough to live well feels ever tougher and for us to also demand less of our planet. Each child means you contribute more to things like climate change.

Just don’t bring that up at parties.

What makes me happy is that I know whatever we choose, it’ll feel like no big deal. If we have an only, we’ll be able to focus on the kid, rather than on some idealized second child that we worry we didn’t have. If we have two, we’ll be fine, too. We’ll focus on being great parents rather than regular ones. It’s an only thing. Onlies would understand.

Read more:
Does an only child experience sibling rivalry?
How do you know you’re ready for a second baby?

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