Making the Case for the Only Child

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It’s a question that’s been asked a little too often, for my taste.  Are you going to have another? My answer depends on my mood, but it’s usually something light and easy and noncommittal.

The internal debate on whether to go back to the candy jar for another sweet cinnamon bun or remain a family of three is a very real one. So I was looking forward to talking to someone who knows her way around the “maybe another baby” discussion. Meet social psychologist, Psychology Today blogger and best-selling author Dr. Susan Newman

Photo by Susan Newman

Q: What made you write your newest book, The Case for the Only Child? [Ed’s note: We’re giving away Dr. Newman’s new book. All you have to do? Yup, leave a comment below. Read on.]

Dr. Susan Newman: I was married before, and the first marriage had four stepchildren. I divorced, remarried and had an only child. Everybody kept saying, “When are you having another? You can’t do that to your child; it’s not fair. Every child needs a sibling.” That got me wondering, What exactly is wrong with only children? Why are people so fiercely tied to the “two children or more” family size? That’s what got me going, and I researched it for decades. This is actually my second book on this topic.

Q: What has the general response been for this book?

SN: Finally someone is supporting the single child family — even though, according to the U.S. Census, it’s the fastest growing family size. In New York, for example, the one child family percentage is  30 percentage, and around the rest of the country it varies from 20-25 percent — double what it was in the ’80s. This is not only going on in this country, it’s a worldwide phenomenon. In England 46 percent of families have one child — it’s the new China. It’s also happening in Spain, Portugal, France, India, Italy, and Germany.

People are happy that someone is the torchbearer for only children. I am kind of objective because I have a brother who I get along with really well, and I can talk about having gone from four children to one. The bottom line is whatever family size you decide on, one is not better than another. You have to do what is comfortable to you.

Q: I chuckled when I read that four months after having your son people asked you when the next one was coming. Sounds so familiar! Horrible, but familiar. Women are dealing with lots of pressure and guilt around this decision to have an only child. In the book you say that it is essentially a matter of trusting your own gut and trusting you own instinct. Can you talk a little about that?

SN: It is a matter of trusting your own instincts, and it is also a matter of what society is like today. Seventy percent of woman are working now, and it’s not just because they think this will be a fun thing to do; they are working because their income is a crucial part of the family support. They are thinking, “How do I raise this child so they do not fit all the [bad kid] stereotypes?” and “Do they really have to have a sibling?”

The other thing parents are considering is down the road, when they are old. Is it fair to have one child be responsible for their elderly parents? I talk about that a lot in the book. In most families when there are siblings, either they argue fiercely or one child does the bulk, if not all, of the parent care. One of the siblings ends up making all the decisions.

Parents have this fantasy that they will have however many children that will rally around their bedside and they will be best friends. Well, sadly that’s often not the case. There is a lot of literature that talks about siblings who don’t get a long. If you have children that are in the 2-3 age bracket, [studies show] that they have six conflicts an hour. That’s one every ten minutes!

Another thing parents heavily consider when they are on the fence about having more children is the lifestyle they have and the kind of lifestyle they want.

Q: How much does the biological clock play a part in woman’s decision to go the “one and done” route?

SN: The biological clock is a huge component because woman are marrying later. Also, they wait to start families because they want to establish their career. They may be having their kids at 35.

Between 1980 and 2004 the number of woman giving birth at 30 doubled, at 35 it tripled and after 40 it almost quadrupled. In those 24 yours we have seen a huge change. When you wait, you are more likely to have fertility issues so your biological clock is a huge influencer.

Q: It’s interesting because when you talk about pressure sometimes it is not really verbalized and it is just this invisible thing that you feel. A strange kind of peer pressure …

SN: It’s even dropping you kid off at nursery school and there is a big sign: “Tommy has a baby sister!” It is very subtle things, not just blatant intrusive comments.

Q: What are some important things for the undecided to consider that might help them get off the fence and make that decision? 

SN: Think about what you want for your life and don’t be influenced by people who think they know what’s best for you. There is very strong evidence that mothers of one are happiest. Actually, when you think about relationships, the thing people think they would argue about the most is money, but it is actually about the children. Definitely something to consider.

Also, the grass always looks greener next door, but you have no idea what is happening in the house. You may be influenced by the children playing together on the yard, but how are things the other 99 percent of the time when you don’t see them?

Q: Right. You know what’s going on in your house and know what that feels like, but next door at the Smiths … hmm. What advice do you have for mothers being bombarded with the not-so-subtle: “When’s the next one is coming?”

SN: You can say, “I don’t ask you any personal questions, why are you asking me?” or “We are happy with our family the way it is.” Those are two really good answers. For people that are really close to you, you can say, “I’m not discussing this anymore. This is a closed topic.” When people are so intrusive you need to set up your boundaries, but if you want to be polite you can say that you are thinking about it … if that’s true.

Q: On your Psychology Today blog, Singletons, have you seen a change in the reader questions that have come your way over the years?

SN: It really depends on what I write. There are still people who are big family supporters and a lot of people have been brain washed into “a girl for you and a boy for me.” They don’t see how family has changed. Family today is very diverse: we have a huge increase in single-mother-by-choice family, we have gay parents, we have multi-racial families, and we have the one child family — which was previously looked at as odd. It’s all become more common.

Q: What would you say is the biggest myth about having only children?

A: The biggest myth is that they are lonely and the next down would be that they are spoiled and bossy. They are all fiction. Lonely being the biggest one, children have play dates, school and extra-curricular activities so it is pretty hard for an only child to be lonely. Last year the University of Ohio did a huge study with only children starting middle school and it found that only children have as many friends as children with brothers and sisters, the study was something like “Siblings good for nothing” which I thought was really interesting.

Q: What do you hope people will walk away thinking after reading your book?

SN: Only children do as well as children with siblings. There is absolutely no difference there, other than that only children have a slight advantage in intellectual achievement and motivation, which makes sense because they have all the parents’ time. I hope that people walk away thinking: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with having one child. Why was I even concerned?!”


For more about Dr. Susan Newman, visit her web site or her blog on Psychology Today.


We’re giving away a copy of Dr. Newman’s book, The Case for the Only Child, to a random reader. Just leave a comment below about how family size, raising only children or the importance of trusting your instincts. You could also just say “hello!” …  that works too. :)

  • 1
    Marie-Claire says:

    “…play dates, school and extra-curricular activities so it is pretty hard for an only child to be lonely.”
    It’sactually pretty easy to be lonely…even with 8 playmates at the local gymboree…even in a room full of other children in the Mandarin for beginners class.
    There is alone and lonely. Playdates and soccer are cover alone…but they are mere hobbies… entertainment…distractions. They do not make you feel loved and secure.
    Having 1 or 2 or 7 children is between 2 people and only 2 people. If a couple decides one is enough, then one is enough! However there is no “case” for the “only child” in the average one child family. Unless you are a single parent or your only child has extra needs, there is no “case”. It’s a lifestyle decision plain and simple. Your lifestyle does not take a hit. You have grown accustomed to a lifestyle and with one child, you can pretty much maintain it.
    There are happy, successful, intelligent, funny, confident, kind, respectful “only children”…however this is not because they are “only children”. They are who they are. There is no “case” for “only children”
    There is, however, a “case” for siblings…your family is a beautiful example. Don’t tell me that the 6.2 conflicts per hour that you all had between the ages of 2 and 3 break the “case” for siblings.
    I haven’t read her book…but it seems to me she might need to write a 3rd book to make her singleton “case”.

  • 2
    Kim Du Bry says:

    As a parent of an only child, I’m fortunate to have several friends that are also parents to “single children” and they are all doing just fine. The children are happy, have friends, and are well-adjusted. There is no right or wrong number of children to have, or to even have children at all. I would love to see more single child acceptance. Great article. Thank you.