Only The Lonely?

Time magazine recently ran and interesting article on “Onlies” or “Only Children” also known as children without siblings. The point of the article was to debunk the long-standing myths of “single children [being] perceived as spoiled, selfish, solitary misfits”. The article caught my attention because I was raised an only child and my son is being raised in an interesting situation where he can be the “only” child 80% of the time.

Here is an interesting trend of note:

“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%. 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.

I admit that finances are a major part of why I have no interest in having another child. I can’t imagine taking on the added responsibility of having another being to feed, clothe, entertain, educate, etc. right now. And I’m not poor! I can’t imagine being working class or living in poverty and having multiple children. I know many rely on government assistance, but even that does not make for a comfortable life. Some feel the benefits of having more children outweigh the downside of financial struggle. I’m not one of them.

The interesting thing is that the information about only children that so many people have sighted come from the flawed work of Granville Stanley Hall in the late 1800s. His studies have since been proven to be based on flawed data collection and other issues. His work has also been debunked several times over throughout the years by newer, more accurate research, but for whatever reason, people still hold onto this idea that being an only child is a fate worse than death.

“Generally, those studies showed that singletons aren’t measurably different from other kids — except that they, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher in measures of intelligence and achievement. Of course, part of the reason we assume only children are spoiled is that whatever parents have to give, the only child gets it all. The argument Judith Blake makes in Family Size and Achievement as to why onlies are higher achievers across socioeconomic lines can be stated simply: there’s no “dilution of resources,” as she terms it, between siblings. No matter their income or occupation, parents of only children have more time, energy and money to invest in their kid.”

I was often called “spoiled”, though I disgareed then AND now. I was always smarter than those around me and I often was involved in more activities, given more opportunities, and received more parental attention than others. My parents had no other focus, so it was all on me. Sure there were various times of struggle, but as life progressed, everything, the good and the bad, came to me. I’m not sure I would have been able to attend the private schools, summer camps, have the latest toys and clothes, etc. had I a sibling. My parents were by no means rich or close to it, but as the article says, socioeconomic status is irrelevant; undivided resources benefit only children.

The only time I felt like I needed siblings was when my mother died and I was left with the responsibility of tending to her affairs. I would have loved to have a sibling to help assist financially, emotionally, etc. (For full disclosure, my father had a son when I was 13, but we never had any real relationship with him, so that’s why he is referred to as my father’s son. By age 13, the characteristics of being an only child are more than likely set in anyway, so it didn’t really matter one way or the other.)

Being an only child made me more creative, more independent. I started writing stories at a young age, I had imaginary friends, and I wanted to do everything by myself. The article (extended version in the magazine) made a point about how only children are more used to engaging in conversations with adults, so their vocabulary is more expansive and their thought process and conversation skills mature earlier. I would agree with this, at least it was my experience, and one I’m witnessing in my son. That is a good and bad thing. He doesn’t understand that when adults are having a conversation, it isn’t for him to jump in. He does anyway, though, because he doesn’t make any distinction; he thinks we’re ALL just talking. He also has a more expansive vocabulary than other children his age, from what I’ve witnessed. He is often complimented for “speaking well” and he uses words other kids generally do not. I love this (I’m a nerdmom) but I can see how it might lead to playground issues lol

I was able to put my son in gymnastics classes at 2 and not have to worry about enrolling another child. My step-daughter did not factor into the equation because she spends the majority of her time with her own mother. As I said, my son is in a unique situation. He has a sister who is the youngest of 4, so she has the experience of sharing resources and attention every day. He only sees her maybe 2-3 weekends a month and while he enjoys that time with her, she is not really much of a threat to the attention and resources focused on him. He can still take expensive classes, get new clothes and shoes regularly, eat out at his favorite restaurants, get new toys, go to the bookstore for new books weekly, etc. We would not be doing these things if I had another child after him.

Is this the best choice for him? I don’t know, maybe. It’s certainly the best choice for me… and others.

“Most people are saying, I can’t divide myself anymore,” says social psychologist Susan Newman. Before technology made the office a 24-hour presence, we actually spent less time actively parenting, she explains. “We no longer send a child out to play for three hours and have those three hours to ourselves,” she says. “Now you take them to the next practice, the next class. We’ve been consumed by our children. But we’re moving back slowly to parents wanting to have a life too. And people are realizing that’s simply easier with one.”

So, if you’ve read any of my previous blog entries, you know that it is really important to me that being a mother doesn’t consume every single inch of my life. I enjoy it, wouldn’t trade it for anything, but being ME is important too. Other people are feeling similarly it seems. I’m not alone.

People need to get past this idea that children MUST have siblings to turn out “OK”. Some of the most famous successful people in history were only children. These negative ideas need to stop so that parents don’t feel pressured into having more children that 1) they can’t afford and 2) they really don’t want. Only children are not being doomed to some social purgatory by not having siblings.  Family planning is a private choice, from every perspective.

What are your thoughts? Have you had to weigh this in your own mind or discuss with your family? How does your partner feel? Do finances impact your thoughts on this?

11 thoughts on “Only The Lonely?

  1. I read this article too, since I’m mother of one, and likely he will be my only one.

    I guess I don’t worry too much about sibs for him, because while he is my only, he is far from alone. He is being raised with his cousins, and he has other brothers and a sister from his father’s side.

    I think he’ll have all of the things he needs to turn out o.k., at least on the sibling front. I rather like the idea of being able to put all my resources into him. I can not imagine what my life would be like if I had more than one child. I’m like you, I don’t mind giving 80 percent of myself to this little person, but I have GOT to keep 10 percent for me (the other 10 goes to everyone else…other family, job, school, etc.,).


  2. Family dynamics are so interesting. I’ve never thought only-children were “spoiled, selfish, solitary, misfits,” although I have thought, as the article also notes, that they’re “highly indulged, and highly protected.” As the psychologist who made that statement said, everything is a double-edged sword; I suppose based on what the rest of an only child’s life is, “highly indulged, and highly protected” can turn out to be a good or bad thing.

    I’d like to have another child one day, for lots of reasons. A major one is that, God willing, my husband and I will pass before my daughter. And when we’re gone, I’d like her to have at least one person from her immediate family with whom she can continue to go through life.


  3. As I was putting my daughter to sleep, I thought more about why I’d like to give her a sibling (and give her to a sibling!). Like other major life relationships, having a sibling is a unique and beautiful experience. It often defines your sense of self (“I’m a big sister!”), and can give you a sense of where you are in the world. I’m reminded of a former professor who lost a daughter to leukemia. She was survived by her older brother, who asked after she passed “am I still a big brother?” 😦 The answer, of course, was that he was, and always would be; it had made a permanent impact on his formation as a person.

    Some of the most important skills and lessons children learn–sharing, empathy, teaching others, protecting others–they learn from siblings. That’s not to say onlies don’t learn them elsewhere; it’s just a unique experience when you learn them with a sibling.

    Having grown up with a sibling, it’s hard for me to imagine raising only one child. Having a sister (or a brother) is not like having a close friend. In fact, how close my sister and I are to each others changes as our lives change. But it doesn’t matter: we don’t have to be best friends all the time, because we’re sisters. She’s known me longer than anyone else in this world, with the exception of my parents, and has watched me grow into the person I am today, often growing right next to me. She doesn’t always have to like me, but she’ll always get me. Those types of relationships are very rare. We can develop them with lots of people in our lives, but I think it’s special when developed with a sibling.


  4. I do agree that there is a very unique bond between siblings. That bond can be extremely positive and valuable in one’s development or extremely detrimental. I think that depends on a number of factors, mainly the parenting influence and child-rearing. Parents can support positive sibling bonds or make having a sibling hell on earth (when favoritism is involved, for example). I also think the distance in age is important. My son’s father has 5 siblings, but none of them were born before he turned 10. He’s had both experiences and that’s unique in itself.

    Having had no siblings growing up, my best friends have become my sisters. I rely on them in the ways I’d likely rely on a sibling. No, it isnt the same, but the bonds are strong enough that I’d give my life for them if needed.

    I guess my point is that just because a child is an only child, it doesnt mean life is guaranteed to have negative outcomes nor does it mean the child will grow up with “issues”.


    1. I hear you; sometimes, sibling relationships can be difficult, even traumatizing. And even in overall positive relationships, sibling rivalry can be intense! My mom had to make up behavior charts, complete with gold stars for good behavior, to get us through that! LOL!


    2. I think that bonds between best friends should be like those ideally present in sibling relationships. One thing I hate it a “blood is thicker than water,” code that some families protect to the point of alienating “half-siblings,” homegirls, potential mentors/mentees, etc. One thing I was just thinking earlier is that people need to be generally more loving towards other non-family members. This is why, in part, I fully support your decision to have one child. You could continue to make yourself available to others in need, as you have done professionally. I’m starting to think that people who do not have any adopted “children” (broadly defined) are selfish introverts.


  5. Right now, my two are playing together, and just got in trouble together. I always knew I wanted more than one, ironically exactly for the reason the article states – I didn’t want to have to be my child’s only playmate, his sole source for those resources, especially the ones of time. For example, there are camps this summer that would take my older child, but not my younger. I find that those camps are just not for us, because what would happen to my younger child? I would have to be her playmate. I don’t want to do that. I like watching my kids play, not actually playing with them.

    The fact that they have each other cannot be understated. It’s simply beautiful. A few days ago, we were at the pool, and a little boy took Amina’s kickboard. Immediately, Ahmir says, hey, that’s my sister’s kickboard. He told the little boy to go find his own. Just witnessing that was the best part of my day. We’ve been trying to cultivate that in them, and it’s taking hold.

    Is it taxing on financial resources? Yes. Especially for day care. I know I won’t have another (at least not on purpose) until both are in school that I don’t have to pay for. It’s just too damn expensive. Grandparents are great in making up for other resources – they help with lessons and other “extras.” But I also find they don’t need so many extras, because they have so much fun playing with each other!

    But I do want another one, maybe two more, and plan on doing it as soon as Amina is almost five and in school. I like the idea of large families, lots of kids. I think it’s nice to have lots of people to have your back, to talk to, to know they love you, no matter what. I think siblings give you that, in a way no other relationship does. I have a brother, but I wish I had more, especially a same-sex sibling. Oh, how much I wish I had a sister.


  6. I’d probably be inclined to have more children if I made more money or married a man who made a lot of money. Money does make things easier. You can even hire assistance if needed.

    I never imagined having kids. But sometimes, when I did imagine, I wanted to have a ton of kids. I would love to have big family dinners and have holidays be lots of fun. But I have to be realistic and know that I cannot afford to give that many children the quality of life I want to give them.

    I do agree with enjoying the sibling connection. When G is with J, its great, most of the time. They fight like cats and dogs, but they do it in the other room lol. The next minute, they’re laughing and hugging up on each other watching TV. In the playground, they fiercely defend and protect each other. Its a joy to watch.

    But my situation is different. I’m not financially responsible for J. G’s father is, but its ok. I make enough to take care of G’s needs and wants on my own. I don’t *have* to spend time with J; I choose to, for the sake of my son and continuing to foster that bond.

    I really want to see a study done on children like them. Half-siblings whose shared parent isn’t married to either mother/father and doesn’t have primary custody. How are they faring? We’ll likely see mostly example of siblings linked by non-custodial dads. I want to know how they fit into this whole thing.


  7. My son is an only child who never fully felt like an only child. We ALWAYS had a houseful of children for dayyyys at a time. I became a surrogate mother to everyone else’s kids… And yes, they were treated as if they were siblings, so I CHRONICALLY stayed broke! LOL but it was worth it. Having one made me a more diligent parent than I may have been; I was his playmate and made sure that he was NEVER lonely or idle.


  8. Lauren Sandler who wrote the Time Magazine article has written an article on Psychology Today to give you some insight and background–she’s an only child with an only child. One & Done: Changing the Conversation

    And, for my take on the attention the only child is getting you can read, The New Traditional Family Gets Respect:

    Susan Newman, author of Parenting An Only Child


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