Having an Only Child

jump2On 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.

Comments 4

  1. I’m an only child, and IF I ever have children, I only want one. I don’t ever want to have to feel guilty about not paying as much attention to my children as I’d like to and I don’t ever want to have to tell them that we can’t afford something because we don’t have enough money.

    Economically and, I think, emotionally, only children are better off because of the sole amount of attention their parents are able to focus on them.

    I’m glad the stigma of only children is finally being replaced with the truth of what we are: healthy, happy, independent people who are no different than those who have brothers and sisters.

  2. I read this book and thought that more people should read it. A big realization that I have made is that the number of children a woman has does not reflect how good a mother she is. I think those of us who care about parenting and mothering get stuck on this image of the Earth Momma who had lots of kids (all homebirths of course) and has unlimited emotional resources for them. I always thought I would have more than two. I had a rocky road to getting my second and there’s this voice that’s getting louder saying “quit while you are ahead”.

  3. I am the proud mother of one. My husband and I didn’t start out planning to have only one child. We figured on two, maybe three. After our daughter was born, we realized that having another child might not be the easy or automatic decision we had assumed. We agreed to wait until our timing, logistics and finances were in order, which seemed like the responsible thing to do. Surprisingly, instead of understanding, we were faced with a lot of pressure from family and friends to have another baby. It was as though it was unacceptable for us to consider otherwise. This pressure persisted for years, until we finally reached the decision that our family is the perfect size with just one child. This was the best choice for us individually and as a family. Once I finally accepted that I don’t need to have more children to prove that I love being a mom, I could let go of all that guilt I’d been lugging around. I have one happy, kind, healthy, and intelligent daughter and absolutely no regrets.

  4. i liked the book, too. i tried to click on the link to “only child” but it didn’t work. i’ll try to find it on my own. thanks…that sounds interesting.

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