I grew up an only child, raised by my grandmother, who was also an only child. Both of my cousins are only children. Two of my closest friends are onlies, and at least a third of the students in my master's writing program were single kids (reading is many an only child's favorite activity). And while only about 10 percent of kids were only children 50 years ago, the rate has risen to about 20 percent over the last 10 years, and it is likely to keep rising, as parents delay childrearing, single parenting increases, and economic woes don't slacken. Not to mention an anti-family culture in the United States that makes parenting hard no matter how many children you have.
Unfortunately, some of the old ideas about only children still persist (they've been roundly disproven by many years of data and repeated study), even as the designation edges toward a quarter of all kids. A new book on the subject, "One and Only" (the author is an only child who has chosen to have just one herself) has brought some of these misconceptions to the surface, and surprisingly, stirred up some vitriolic comments over at Slate (where an excerpt of the book is reprinted) and at Salon, where Sandler answered questions about the negativity she has experienced in writing about the subject.
"I’m still shocked at how this topic rankles people. I mean, I wrote a book about Evangelicals from a feminist atheist perspective and did a ton of Christian radio — and the blowback I got was nothing compared to when my Time cover story came out saying, quite simply, that only children are OK," Sandler said.
What's all the fuss about?
It's really shocking to me, this level of anti-only children-ness. I spent my entire childhood very much enjoying being the sole object of my grandmother's attention; she was able to spend lots of time teaching me to garden, going over my homework, reading books with me, and packing lunches that included special notes. At one point, she asked me if I wanted a sibling, and at first I said yes. But after a week of thinking about it, I told her that I didn't. Not one of my friends had a fun, friendly, positive relationship with their (mostly younger) siblings, and the younger kids were always trying to play with us, which was annoying. When I was older and babysat, I saw siblings doing absolutely horrible things to one another, including a boy who pinched his baby sister so hard she had welts all over one arm, and a little girl who would kick her sister in the shins and lock her in the bathroom whenever my back was turned. Through my years of childcare, I learned that abuse between siblings is rampant and little-discussed. Adults I've known who were bullied by siblings have never really gotten over it. In my own family, my father and his brother barely spoke their entire adult lives; they didn't like each other much as kids and even less so as adults. As I've grown older, I've seen some of my friends' relationships with their siblings blossom into really beautiful friendships (my uncle's wife and her sister are genuine buddies and love hanging out together) — and plenty who still can't stand their brothers and sisters, a couple to the point where they avoid seeing or speaking to them, like my father and his brother (as for banding together when parents pass, this time only brought out the worst in my uncle and father).
From the perspective of an only child, it seems like getting along with your siblings as adults is a real crapshoot. But unlike friends, who you can choose (or grow apart from over time), you are always stuck with a sibling; if you get along with them, it can be a truly wonderful thing. If not, it's a familial burden and a constant source of negative feelings over an entire lifetime. So the idea that giving a child a sibling is a gift to them, a partner in crime for the rest of their lives — well, it may be true. Or it could end up that you're "providing" a burden for a sibling who will have to forego putting a down payment on a house so they can send a sister to drug rehab, or check them into a mental facility. (I've had a few friends who have had to do this incredibly difficult work for troubled siblings.)
The point being that as a parent, you have no idea how having a sibling will affect a kid, and the expectation that it will only be a positive experience for them both is a false one. A brother or sister isn't any kind of insurance for a happier life for both or either of them, so having an additional child or two should be one that the parents make for themselves, based on their passions and interests. Siblings can be happy or miserable, just as only children can be happy or miserable.
The parent angle
Obviously, having just one child is easier on the Earth, parental finances, and mom's workload (studies show that women do about twice as much housework as men): "Each child adds no less than 120 hours of housework a year," according to Sandler's book. It also might lead to increased parental happiness. While stats show that parents experience higher levels of depression and unhappiness than non-parents, having one child can bring people the benefits of parenting with less of the stress. As Sandler writes over at Slate, "The research of Hans-Peter Kohler, a professor of demography at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jere Berman, a professor of economics, gives weight to [the idea that one child maximizes parental happiness]. In their much-discussed analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler tells me, 'At face value, you should stop at one child to maximize your subjective well-being.'"
Only children score higher on tests of intelligence and achievement, and, Sandler writes, "in hundreds of studies during the past decades exploring 16 character traits — including leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment — only children scored just as well as children with siblings." As far as only children being lonely? Well, some are, and some aren't. I've never genuinely felt lonely, because I learned how to hang out with myself (and books, and music, ideas and my beloved creative projects) at a young age. I also think being an only child — independent and used to thinking for myself — led me to stand up against peer pressure when I was in high school and college.
As someone who was raised as an only child-turned-sibling — turns out I have a half-sister I met when I was 32, and I'm happy to report that she is someone I would hang out with even if I wasn't related to her, because she's awesome — I think either way can be a valid choice. And whether you have one or two or no kids at all (or single parent, or community-parent or gay-parent), it's all personal choice, after all. Let's stop yelling about how only children are terrible and siblings are the best, because neither is true for everyone.
There is no one right way to be human. Let's stop pretending like there is.
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