It didn’t take long for Lynne Segal and her husband Greg to decide they wanted just one child.
“Once we got into the parenting process, we were overwhelmed with the amount of time and focus that it takes,” says Segal, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with Greg and their 7-year-old son Max. “We felt like we could be much better parents to one person, and it also made more sense for us financially.”
An increasing number of American families are traveling the road once less-traveled: raising only one child. Fifty years ago, when only children represented just 10 percent of all kids under age 18, singletons – or “onlies,” as they’re sometimes called – were often thought of as lonely, spoiled and selfish.
Today, the myth has received somewhat of a makeover. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the number of one-child families has increased to nearly 16 million, representing about 20 percent of all kids nationwide.
And research paints a growing case. Like the Ohio State University study that found as adolescents, only kids have just as many friends as their multi-sibling peers. And only children may even be happier overall, according a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research in the UK (incidentally, in Britain, homes with onlies “make up nearly half of all families,” the article notes).
Here’s a look at how this family stereotype is undergoing some major changes.
A persistent myth, unraveling
The typecast of the only child as a self-absorbed loner has existed since the late 19th century, when American psychologist G. Stanley Hall decided to study them. He concluded only kids were among the most likely to be “peculiar,” noting that being an only child was “a disease unto itself.” Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, echoed the sentiment: “The only child has difficulty with independent activity and, sooner or later, they became useless in life.”
The problem there? Lack of scientific merit. In fact, their findings eschewed much modern scientific foundation other than anecdotal interpretation. Unchallenged, however, their view of the only child existed well into the 20th century. Only children were frequently labeled as selfish and maladjusted. Many saw singletons as unnaturally dependent or overly mature for their age.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, when a new generation began investigating, that things began to change. Researcher Toni Falbo, an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas, demonstrated through her research that only children were no more spoiled, lonely or unhappy than their peers with siblings.
Falbo made waves within psychology circles with her findings by asserting that singletons were not only “perfectly normal,” but they actually “scored significantly better than other groups in achievement, motivation and personal adjustment.” She concluded the findings probably related to parents’ attention, time and resources.
“Undivided attention has its benefits,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising your One and Only. “Because there are no siblings, only children usually spend more time with their parents – and this has been shown to give the only child an advantage in motivation and achievement.”
Parents of one child tend to put their onlies in a fish bowl, she continues, seeing everything they do and every mistake they make. “So it’s best for parents of one to lower their expectations and parent from a realistic position,” Newman adds.
Although child development professionals now widely agree that only children are ordinary folk, it seems to be taking longer for the general public to shift gears.
“I find that, in this culture, most people expect you to have two children,” Lynne Segal says. “The common response is, ‘Oh – only one?’ Most people are tactful about it, but I still feel like they expect an explanation.”
What’s better: more or less?
There seems to be a prevailing notion that more kids is better. Falbo, in her research, explained that the reason families tended to have more was based largely upon needs versus wants. “It’s only been about 100 years since we curbed infant mortality,” she wrote. “Before that, we had multiple children to end up with at least one, and I think there is still something built into our thinking at a very deep level.”
Long-standing stereotypes can be reinforced when people selectively hear stories that support them, psychologist Newman explains, citing stories of adult only-children who blame an unhappy childhood on not having siblings, while ignoring evidence to the contrary.
“People forget that siblings don’t always have a good experience either,” she says. “Remember that the grass is always greener on the other side.”
For instance, the idea that it is better for a child to have siblings to help deal with aging parents is a common reason for “multis.” “The reality is, when kids get older, the elder care usually falls on one sibling – the one that is closest (in proximity) and most financially-able,” Newman says. “Then you get siblings who complain about those who don’t help out. There are pros and cons to any situation.”
However, in Wired magazine article “The Natural History of the Only Child,” science writer Carl Zimmer noted animals have “evolved a balance between offspring and effort. Some can even adjust how many offspring they produce, depending on whether they are under stress or live comfortably.”
Zimmer went on to say that, to a certain extent, humans are governed by the same set of rules – and therefore, when the standard of living goes up, so too does the cost of living. That could fuel the shrinking family phenomenon.
So … what about the child?
Because there is an innate desire for people to feel connected with others, it stands to reason that many singletons long to be part of a larger nuclear family.
Margaret Boegehold and her husband, Russ, who live in Clinton Township, adopted a child when Margaret was in her mid-40s. And, like many parents of only children, the Boegeholds sometimes struggle with feelings of guilt because their daughter, 5-year-old Serena, wants a sibling.
“Serena very much wants a brother or sister and has cried to us at times because she wants a sibling,” Margaret says. “This does bother her.”
Whatever the rationale – and there are myriad reasons why couples stop after one child – the Boegeholds’ concern over their daughter’s well-being tends to focus on her social development more than her need for a household companion.
“From the very beginning, we’ve had Serena share with her friends and with us, and of course, that isn’t always easy for any child,” Margaret says. “We’ve taught Serena to take turns, and she also expects others to do the same – she is very considerate of others’ feelings.”
Newman applauds the Boegeholds’ approach, and is reminded that the stereotype of selfishness in only children, and their difficulty in forming healthy relationships as adults, should be set aside.
“Birth order advocates have a lot to say about onlies in terms of relationships,” she says. “The fact is that only children are no different from other children – as children or adults – and have no more problems in relationships than anyone else who enters into a close bond. There will be agreements and disagreements; likes and dislikes; matches and mismatches.”
Does the want linger?
All grown up, married and with families of their own, some onlies still carry the torch to have a sibling.
Emily Drake, 26, of Royal Oak, is happily married, loves her career and is excited to begin a family with her husband, Marc. Yet she still viscerally recalls what it was like growing as a singleton in a sea of multi-sibling friendships.
“While being an only caused me to be outgoing and social at an early age, the fact still remained that when the street lights went dark, I went home alone,” she says. “I was quite jealous of my friends who had siblings and always wanted someone older around me to show me the ropes and teach me a thing or two – as no parent can.”
On the other hand, she is quick to point out that her yearning for a sibling is tamped down by the quality of the time her parents devoted to raising her.
“I had less pressure on me because there were no predecessors,” she says. “There was no one before me who got straight A’s. … I was wholly accepted for who I was, and my strengths were cultivated, grew and prospered because my parents had more attention to pay to what I needed and wanted out of experiences.”
Even before 36-year-old software engineer – and only child – Eric Lefevre met his wife, he knew multiple children would be a part of his future. The now-married father of three says that when he was dating, one of the first questions he would ask a girl was how many children she wanted.
“I wouldn’t date a girl if she didn’t think she wanted more than one kid,” he says. “I grew up begging my parents to have more kids. While I had a ton of friends, I always felt that something was missing and, 30-odd years later, still think about what it would be like to have a brother or sister.”
Lefevre, who met his wife Joanne in college, says one of the things that attracted him was that she, too, was an only child – and that they connected on the idea of a large family surrounded by lots of happily-screaming tots.
“While I don’t necessarily have regrets about growing up without a brother or sister, I do recognize that my kids will be lucky to have each other to lean on as they get older,” Lefevre adds.
No right answer
There aren’t many people who would argue with the statement that parenting a singleton is easier than multiple children – certainly it is less costly in financial terms. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, for families that make roughly $60,000 a year, each child cost more than $250,000 by the time he or she reaches age 18 – and that doesn’t include college tuition.
While children from larger families enjoy some advantages, including having playmates and tormentors, teammates and rivals, the greatest contribution to raising kids with effective interpersonal skills is good parenting.
“If a couple decides to have only one child, they should make sure the child has sibling substitutes from whom to learn sharing, empathy and conflict resolution,” Newman says. “The ideal number of children is the number that you and your partner agree on – and that won’t overwhelm and tax you or stretch you so thin that you are always in a panic.”