In Down Economy, Only-Child Families on the Rise

Filed under: Work Life, Siblings, In The News

The myth of the "lonely only" has been debunked. Credit: Getty Images

If you're the parent of a "lonely only," you may feel pretty lonely yourself amidst a sea of parents with more than one child. But fret not -- only-child families are on the rise in the United States, according to a recent article in Time magazine. Besides, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Cary Grant, John Updike and Chelsea Clinton are all onlies, and they seem to have done just fine for themselves.

"The recession has dramatically reshaped women's childbearing desires," Larry Finer, director of domestic policy at the Guttmacher Institute, tells Time.

The institute, a leading reproductive health research organization, reports that 64 percent of women polled say they couldn't afford to have a baby now, with the economy the way it is, and 44 percent say they plan to reduce or delay childbearing for the same reason, according to the magazine.

Single-child families typically increase in number during times of financial difficulty, Time reports, adding that the number of families with one child spiked at 23 percent during the Great Depression. In addition, since the early 1960s, the number of families opting to have one child has nearly doubled, to about one in five, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Although many parents worry about being able to support more than one child, well-meaning relatives, friends and complete strangers continue to urge parents of only children to have another baby, according to Time.

There are a number of time-honored reasons for having more children, such as the religious directive to "be fruitful and multiply" present in some cultures. Yet, the main reason families choose not to stop at one child "amounts to a century-old public relations issue," Times says, which blames the negative stereotypes that portray only children as spoiled, selfish, solitary misfits.

This image of the "lonely only" began more than a century ago with the work of Granville Stanley Hall, a leader of the child-study movement, who declared: "Being an only child is a disease in itself."

Hall's 1896 study "Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children" describes only children as permanent misfits, according to Time, concluding that an only child could not be expected to go through life with the same capacity for adjustment as children with siblings.

This view of the single child has been disseminated for decades, creating a lasting stereotype that has infiltrated everything from self-help literature to pop culture -- from '70s horror films to current TV sitcoms to sociologist Judith Blake's 1989 book "Family Size and Achievement," which describes singletons as "overprivileged, asocial, royally autonomous ... self-centered, aloof and overly intellectual," Time reports.

And it's not just an American view: Only-child stereotypes can be found cross-culturally from Estonia to Brazil, stemming from "when people needed bigger families to farm the land," California State University researcher Adriean Mancillas tells Time.

Generations of researchers have tried to debunk the myth of the only child. Toni Falbo and Denise Polit, colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed numerous studies of only children, concluding that singletons are not 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, Time reports.

Falbo tells the magazine no one has published research that can demonstrate any truth behind the stereotype of the only child as "lonely, selfish and maladjusted."

In "Family Size and Achievement," Blake says only children are higher achievers because there's simply no "dilution of resources" -- meaning parents of only children have more time, energy and money to invest in their child. This means the only child gets all the piano lessons and prep courses, as well as all of their parents' attention when it comes to needing help with school work, according to Time.

Researchers say this attention leads not only to higher SAT scores, but also to higher self-esteem, the magazine reports, and Falbo agrees, explaining that this "cocktail of aptitude and confidence" yields tangible results, with only children tending to do better in school and getting more education -- college, medical or law degrees -- than other kids.

Yet, even with the evidence that supports families of only children, most parents still opt to have another child; although Time says parents often choose to do so because they think it will be better for the child they already have -- not for themselves.

But trends appear to be shifting, the magazine reports.

"Most people are saying, I can't divide myself anymore," social psychologist Susan Newman tells Time. "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."

Related: The Only Child Myth

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