Not So Lonely: Busting the Myth of the Only Child

Only child
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Bill and Hillary have one. Franklin D. Roosevelt was one. And the chances are you probably know one or two. Even I have one of the selfish, lonely, and maladjusted creatures said to be populating America in greater numbers every year. I am referring to the “only child,” also known as singletons or onlies.

Despite the only child being a growing demographic, having one still attracts a surprising amount of criticism. At a playground in London, one mother told me she thought having an only child was tantamount to child abuse as she watched my daughter toddle alone in the sandbox. When I told my mother that I probably wouldn’t have any more children, she exclaimed disparagingly that one child was “simply not a family.” My husband, on the other hand, has not had any of these accusations leveled against him. The shaming of mothers of singletons is yet another arena in which guilt, scorn, and impossibly high expectations are heaped upon women, encouraged by society’s biased views.

23 percent of Americans have only one child; in New York City, as in a lot of urban centers, the figure is 30 percent.

A year ago, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated the world’s population at 7.2 billion. At the same time, natural resources like clean air and water are dwindling. Yet to talk of restricting the number of children people choose to have smacks of coercive policy-making or, worse, genetic engineering. In developed countries, though, a limit on family size seems to be occurring organically, without the need for legislation or encouragement from campaigners. If you had asked American women in the 1930s how many children they wanted, 64 percent would have said they wanted at least three. Today, most women feel that 2.5 is ideal. Many of us, however, don’t manage more than one. In fact, 23 percent of Americans have only one child; in New York City, as in a lot of urban centers, the figure is 30 percent.

For many, the rationale for stopping at one child is financial. The cost of raising a kid in the U.S.—before he even gets to college—is $245,300. For others, there simply aren’t enough childbearing years left to have another. And, for a very small minority, the environment and overpopulation are factors. But there is something else at work here: Society is moving away from seeing only children as disadvantaged—though the shift is happening painfully slowly.

Just more than a hundred years ago, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall declared that being an only child was a disease in itself. 

Just more than a hundred years ago, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall declared that being an only child was a disease in itself. He was responsible for putting forth the stereotype of the singleton as deficient, indulged, and spoiled. His theories—which he promoted around the same time that psychoanalysis was beginning to blossom—firmly took root. Hall has since undergone some scrutiny, and many of his theories have been rejected within the realm of academia, but popular opinion has yet to catch up. Hall’s words continue to reverberate around playgrounds and kitchen tables all over the country. We hear so often that only children are self-centered, antisocial, and unable to share, that the stereotype has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at the very least, what is known as a “cultural truism.”

In her essay “G. Stanley Hall: Male Chauvinist Educator,” the scholar Gill Schofer accuses Hall—the father of child psychology—of being outdated. In Hall’s eyes, women were born solely to be mothers and wives. They were not to engage in any pursuits that might be mentally taxing, such as learning Latin, Greek, or mathematics. If women were to roam outside the realm of the house, society would crumble.

Hall advocated something called “retarding,” a process by which a girl’s education was designed to prevent her from engaging in analytical or cerebral pursuits.

In fairness to Hall, who was born in 1844 and lived the life of a Victorian gentleman, these views were not uncommon for the time. He wrote at length about his mother, whom he worshipped. He described her as the epitome of the Angel in the House, selflessly devoted to her children, her husband, and God. For society to function, Hall believed, all women needed to model themselves on her.

Some of Hall’s opinions were quaint, while others were dangerous. For instance, he advocated something called “retarding,” a process by which a girl’s education was designed to prevent her from engaging in analytical or cerebral pursuits—any curiosity about important subjects such as science, history, or politics was to be repressed in order for her untainted maternal intuition to come to the fore. To Hall, “a purely intellectual woman is…a biological deformity.” And “to a man, wedlock is an incident, but for women, it is destiny.”

In 1987, Denise F. Polit and Toni Falbo undertook the first large-scale attempt to understand the effects of not having siblings on children.

So why have Hall’s views on only children held such a grip on our culture when we have shed every one of his opinions on gender roles? In the 1980s, when more women were heading for the workplace and delaying having children, articles in academic journals with titles like “Negative Stereotypes About Only Children Unfounded; They Do Well on Any Measure” finally started to appear. These articles helped balance the established preconceptions about only children with careful research. And then, in 1987, Denise F. Polit and Toni Falbo undertook the first large-scale attempt to understand the effects of not having siblings on children.

Polit and Falbo’s findings, which were the result of in-depth analysis of past and current studies, came to the conclusion that singletons and multiples shared much more than we had previously thought. What’s more, they found that the disadvantages of being an only child were, on balance, nonexistent.

Reading the study today, certain details jump out, such as the section on antisocial behavior, one of the traits Hall ascribed to onlies without exception. In previous research, sociability had been measured by self-report, with only children seeing themselves as much less sociable than other children. However, when peers were asked about the sociability of singletons, they were said to be more sociable than children with siblings on average. Another case of cultural truism, perhaps? If you tell a child often enough that he is unsociable, eventually he’ll start to believe it.

More recently, Lauren Sandler’s 2013 book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One, merges personal stories and anecdotes with up-to-date statistics. Parental happiness, Sandler reports, declines with every child. And in Denmark, women with one child scored far happier than women with no children or women with more than one. Despite this research, the myth of these sad and lonely only children with their desperate and unfulfilled mothers stubbornly persists.

Only children have higher IQs than those with siblings.

Many studies on the benefits of one-child families, however, seem to feature factors that are irrelevant to many women when they are deciding how many children to have. Most of us probably don’t pay much heed to the fact that only children have higher IQs than those with siblings, or the fact that they often reach higher academic rankings. It certainly wouldn’t be a reason for any woman I know to stop at one. The fact is that modern motherhood and a working life are often incompatible. Some women excel at juggling careers and multiple children—either through hard work, having the money for childcare, living near family members who can look after their children for free, or any combination of these factors. Others simply can’t do it. We stop at one because we don’t have the money, the time, or the love for another child. Our financial and emotional resources, we feel, are only ample enough to nurture one child well. Or perhaps crippling postpartum depression frightens some women away from going through the difficult and lonely years of caring for another baby. That was certainly a factor for me.

One major raison d’être for feminism is to allow women to make informed choices: whether or not to marry, to work, to have children. But the taboo around choosing to have one child persists. I found it shocking that so many people I barely knew felt entitled to point out how selfish I was for not giving my daughter a sibling. But selfishness is closely linked to—and sometimes confused with—self-preservation, a human being’s most deeply ingrained instinct for survival, and a desirable and healthy characteristic for someone raising a child.

Singletons, in other words, are more maligned than maladjusted, and it does them a disservice to perpetuate outdated stereotypes invented by a reactionary Victorian gentleman.

Perhaps, in time, as more people choose to stop at one child, the stigma will disappear. This will also make it easier on those who had the decision to have one child thrust upon them through infertility, ill health, the breakup of a relationship, or, in some cases, the death of a child’s sibling. It will also free children without siblings from having to prove to the world that they can be social, generous, and well-adjusted. Negative comments directed at one-child families suggest a view of life where we can all choose what we want, when and how we want it. Even when it comes to having children, the image that people are being sold—and that some are buying—is one of the happy consumer with an array of endless choices. Yet the reality of bearing children is far from this.

Whatever happened to the idea that life cannot be perfectly planned, nor can we always get what we want when it comes to the big decisions facing us. We are all muddling through, doing the best we can. Siblings won’t necessarily make a sad and lonely child happy, nor will not having siblings necessarily make a happy child miserable. Singletons, in other words, are more maligned than maladjusted, and it does them a disservice to perpetuate outdated stereotypes invented by a reactionary Victorian gentleman. G. Stanley Hall has been dead for 90 years. Maybe a burgeoning acceptance toward one-child families is finally starting to creep into society at large, one that will allow modern women and the people around them to stop seeing one child as being “only” one, and to start seeing them for the abundance they really are.


JSTOR Citations

Adolescents’ Perceptions of Parental Affect: An Investigation of Only Children vs. Firstborns and the Effect on Spacing

By: Jeannie S. Kidwell

Journal of Population, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 148-166

Published by: Springer

Negative Stereotypes About Only Children Unfounded; They Do Well on Any Measure

Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 13, No. 3 (May - Jun., 1981), pp. 147-148

Guttmacher Institute

Only Children and Personality Development: A Quantitative Review

By: Denise F. Polit and Toni Falbo

Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 49, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 309-325,

National Council on Family Relations

The Only Child Grows up: A Look at Some Characteristics of Adult Only Children

By: Denise F. Polit, Ronald L. Nuttall and Ena V. Nuttall

Family Relations, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 99-106

National Council on Family Relations

Joanna Pocock

Joanna Pocock is a British-Canadian writer currently living in Missoula, Montana. She has published articles in Litro, Mslexia, 3:AM, Good Housekeeping, Distinctly Montana, and the Nation. Some of her short fiction has been anthologised by Hearst Magazines and the Malinki Press. She has been teaching creative writing at the University of the Arts in London, England for fifteen years but is currently taking time out to explore the American West.

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