On the advice of my friend L, I finally got myself a copy of Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families by Bill McKibben. It’s pretty good.
Bill McKibben is an environmentalist who began the book, really, when he and his wife first started thinking about how many children they would have. He is the father of one daughter and he feels strongly that it’s important that some of us have smaller families for environmental reasons. He doesn’t argue that we *all* should have one child or that people shouldn’t have large families. Children, he says, “are magnificent” and people should have the families they want to have. But, he argues, if more of us knew that it was ok — even wonderful — to have smaller families than maybe more of us would make that choice.
The book talks about the environmental impact of larger families as well as the economic repercussions of a lower birthrate but the first part of the book, which argues that smaller families are wonderful, was the part that for obvious reasons that I found most compelling.
According to McKibben, the negative stereotypes we have about only children (selfish, lonely, socially inept) are untrue. The “science” cited by the many articles warning us about the danger of having “only” one child is based on one poorly done “study” from the late 1800s. (Reading about the study is hilarious; it’s worth it to glance a the book just for that!) Since that one study there has been a lot of research that proves that only children look a lot like children from larger families. They are no more selfish, egocentric, or neurotic than any other kids.
In fact, researchers found that “only children scored significantly better than other groups in achievement motivation and personal adjustment.” They also argue that “because only children receive more attention from their parents, they are likely to exhibit more ‘character’ than other children, character here consisting of such traits as maturity and cooperativeness,” and “they are more likely to develop a sense of personal control than other children.” There’s more. According to the studies cited here, only children are more popular (being most often chosen first for games), appear to have more “flexible sex-role orientation, which is to say that researchers find boys playing with dolls and girls with trucks” (although I’m unfortunately not really seeing this in my family), and apparently only children are smarter. Says one study: “there are marked negative effects on IQ of increasing sib size … only children remained significantly superior in average vocabulary performance to children in all other family sizes.”
There’s a whole bunch of stuff about how the relationship between parents and the first-born change when the sibling arrives, which is a little heart-rending to read.
You may also want to glance at Only Child, the publication for parents of one child.