One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One

by Lauren Sandler 

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

Parents of only children can breathe a sigh of relief. Citing decades of comprehensive research, journalist Lauren Sandler sets out to debunk the prevailing myths about only children and their parents. As an only child and the parent of an only, Sandler understands all too well the prejudice faced by parents who choose to stop at one.

Sandler devotes ample attention to the selfishness theory–that singletons are selfish because they don’t have siblings to teach them how to share and how to get along with others. Study after study shows the fallacy of this assumption:

Instead of operating in terms of what’s mine, as siblings tend to do, onlies learn from mothers and fathers how to develop mature and ethical behavior in relationships. Singletons mimic how their parents share and take responsibility, rather than brawl over the remote. From parents’ influence, rather than an immature siblings’, Cacioppo says, You know you can’t exploit other kids, you know you have to attend to other people, and you tend to take a greater responsibility within those relationships.’

Sandler doesn’t set out to convince anyone who wants multiples to stop at one. What she does set out to do is to help parents who want to stop at one feel that doing so is an option. She argues that when parents who would prefer to have one have two or three or four, because that’s what society expects of them, they tend to be less happy as parents, and to pass the stress and unhappiness on to their children. Her findings are encouraging to those of us who choose, for whatever reason, to stop at one:

  • Contrary to popular belief, onlies tend to get along better, not worse, with other children.
  • Onlies tend to score higher on IQ tests
  • Onlies tend to develop a greater vocabulary much earlier–in large part because onlies receive much more language interaction with their parents than do multiples
  • Onlies tend to be high achievers, accounting for disproportionate numbers of, for example, Nobel Laureates
  • Greater access to their parents and greater “parental vigilance” leads to higher confidence in only children, which positively affects happiness and achievement throughout their lives
  • Onlies are more likely to build strong friendships that last throughout their lifetimes
  • Onlies are more likely, as adults, to be happy with solitude
  • Onlies tend to have stronger bonds with their parents

One of the author’s sources, Toni Falbo, has analyzed more than 500 studies, and has used the data from these studies to examine sixteen traits–

leadership, maturity, extraversion, social participation, peer popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, and contentment. In each and every one of these categories, only children do just as well as siblings.

There are two gaps in the data–achievement motivation and self-esteem. In these categories, only children scored higher than children with siblings.

One of the more cynical myths about parents of onlies is that they simply don’t like children. Sandler cites an old (1955) but enlightening study surveying 1,455 fertile couples on their choice to have one or more children. The authors of the study, Lois Pratt and P.K. Whipton, found that “nearly half of the parents who planned to stop at one said they liked their child ‘very much’ on a scale of very much, much, some, or little–twice as many as parents of two kids. (Under five percent of parents with three children liked their kids ‘very much.’” The point being that parents of onlies didn’t dislike children, as is so often assumed by parents of multiples. Far from it. The parents of onlies “were usually just happy with the one child they already had.”

Unfortunately, Sandler also spends a lot of time talking about only children in China, where the famous (or infamous) one-child policy has made one-child families the norm. She cites the economic reasons for the embrace of the policy among many parents–they want their children to be able to get ahead. China is a poor comparison model for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that children who grow up in a society where all of their friends are also only children are not facing the stigma that onlies in the U.S. face. Nor are their parents.

Despite the good news for parents of only children, Sandler acknowledges the primary challenge facing singletons: as adults, they will be the sole progeny when their parents are old and ailing. She notes that parents can make this easier by planning well for their elderly years, as her own parents have done. Still, she admits, there is no easy answer for only children who will likely one day survive their parents. That said, she points out that, in most families, it is one child–usually the oldest and nearest daughter–who takes on most of the responsibilities of caring for older parents.

She also notes the importance of a healthy relationship for parents of on lies, a marriage in which each spouse is an equal, individuated partner. When parents fight, it is particularly difficult for only children, who do not have the refuge of siblings. No parents should ever cast children in the role of mediator; this is especially important in one-child families.

In addition to debunking myths about only children, Sandler delves into the patterns of only children. One-child families tend to be more prevalent in times of economic hardship. The more religious you are, the more children you tend to have. Only children are more likely to be the offspring of highly educated, secular parents.

And finally, Sandler notes that, in discussions of the environment, family size rarely comes up; it is, for all intents and purposes, off the table. While she doesn’t suggest that anyone stop at one for the sake of the environment, she notes the hypocrisy of acting as though family size is irrelevant in the environmental debate. The single most effective thing you can do to help the environment is have fewer children. The more children you have, the greater stress on the planet’s resources, no matter how environmentally “friendly” you raise your children to be.

ONE AND ONLY should be required reading for any parent who wants to have only one child but thinks they should have two “for the sake of the children.” It should also be read by parents of multiples who feel that their one-child peers are somehow “less” as parents. As the mother of a well-adjusted only, I found this book illuminating, encouraging, and essential.

ISBN 978-1451626957

Simon & Schuster, June 2013

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Michelle Richmond (reviewer) is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, and Dream of the Blue Room. Her new novel, GOLDEN STATE, will be published in March of 2014.




Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

In this entertaining, enlightening book, Berger explains why certain ideas and products become viral. Using examples as diverse as an As-Seen-on-TV blender, a $100 Philly cheesesteak, and the suddenly cool-again Kit Kat, Berger outlines the STEPPS system for making an idea or product highly sharable:

  • Social Currency – Will people feel cool and in-the-know when they share your product?
  • Triggers – What will remind others to think about and talk about your product?
  • Emotion – “When we care, we share.”
  • Public – How visible is your product or idea?
  • Practical Value – People like to share information that is helpful and practical.
  • Stories – If you package your product or idea in a remarkable, interesting, and relevant story, you increase sharing exponentially.

Despite a fair amount of unnecessary repetition, the book offers clear strategies for breathing life into a campaign.

Bottom Line: Contagious is a tremendously helpful guide for anyone looking to spread brand identity and create buzz on a budget. While the ideas are useful for businesses of any size, small businesses in particular will benefit from the relatively low cost of putting the STEPPS into practice.

Related content: Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor who blurbed the book, offers clear explanations of some of the behavioral patterns described in this book in the Psychology of Money segment of his online coursera course, “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.” For a video lecture explaining prospect theory and diminishing sensitivity, see Ariely’s lecture on money and relativity. 

Simon & Schuster, March 2013


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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog and the forthcoming novel Golden State. Creator of The Paperclip Method. Follow Richmond’s reviews @michellerichmon










5 Great Books for Grads

Estartupofyoumily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online, by Daniel Post Senning
Because every grad could brush up on his or her manners before heading out into the job market or onto the college scene. The Post Institute’s answer to all things digital, from the etiquette of sharing to the proper way to text, not to mention when it is, and isn’t, okay to pull out your cell phone. Do you know a grad who texts through dinner and posts everything on facebook? Do him a tremendous favor; buy him this book.
Open Road, April 2013, ISBN 978-1453254950

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
A smart guide to thinking of yourself in entrepreneurial terms, by Linked-in co-founder Hoffman. A good eye-opener to the possibilities of forging connections, adapting to the demands of changing economic landscapes, and thinking big in an extremely competitive world.
Crown, Feb. 2012, ISBN 978-0307888907

Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, by Anne Truitt
If they are fortunate and hard-working, students graduate from college with the tools they need to tackle the job market. But do they know how to be true to their own vision as artists and individuals? The antidote to all the business, networking, and social media talk that bombards us at every turn, Daybook is a thought-provoking memoir about living the artistic life. Written over a period of seven years, as the artist sculpts, creates, and watches her own daughter become a mother, Daybook is a call to the quiet life from which some of our best efforts spring.
Scribner, Oct. 2013, ISBN 978-1476740980

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by Mario Livio
A brief history of inspired stumbling that shows that some of the biggest advances come from thinking, trying, screwing up, and thinking again. Through the lives of five remarkable scientists, Livio reminds us that the best discoveries do not always come from a plan, and that when we go off track, we can accomplish the extraordinary.
Simon & Schuster, May 2013, ISBN 978-1439192368

A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
A long haul of a book, about ambition, writing, love, parenting, failure, and many other things. Because sometimes we all need to slow down and think. Read an in-depth review of A Man in Love.
Archipelago, May 2013, ISBN 978-1935744825

Review by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and two other books of fiction

Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

You probably won’t like M.E. Thomas, the pseudonymous author of Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life of Hiding in Plain Sight. That said, you may recognize some of her characteristics in people you know: an ability to turn on the charm when something is to be gained, a lack of conscience, a tendency to orchestrate relationships and to discard friends and acquaintances when they are no longer useful. You may even begin to wonder if you’re a sociopath yourself.

Thomas, a Texas law professor who also happens to teach Sunday School at her Mormon church, details her own journey to diagnosis. She grew up knowing she was different, but not understanding why. At the age of thirty, a psychiatric evaluation revealed that Thomas had “a prototypical psychopathic personality.”

What makes the book initially interesting–the author’s recitation of her own sociopathic character traits and actions–is what makes it ultimately easy to put down. Thomas contends that she, like the majority of other sociopaths, lives successfully in society, undetected. She believes that her sociopathic tendencies make her, in some ways, a more evolved human being, highly capable and very well-liked. She also finds herself to be exceptionally good-looking, stylish, and somewhat brilliant. A sympathetic reader might argue that Thomas be blamed for these narcissistic tendencies, as sociopaths by definition tend to have a very high opinion of themselves, often unsupported by the facts.

The book’s strength is that it may provide some comfort to anyone who suspects they are married to–or perhaps raising–a sociopath. While sociopaths are over-represented in prisons, Thomas contends that many more are living among us, “hiding in plain sight.” She estimates that four percent of the population fit the diagnosis for sociopathy. For sociopaths and those who love them, it should be heartening to know that a diagnosis of sociopathy does not doom a person to a life of crime or loneliness. While Thomas fantasizes about killing, for example, it’s not something she would ever consider acting upon.

Parents of sociopaths may find the book to be a sometimes painful, sometimes comforting insight into the elementary school years.

“I usually had friends despite my perceived oddness,” Thomas writes, “but I experienced periods in which I was avoided or even ostracized by everyone. I could overwhelm people, put them off. I was too aggressive for them, or they could see how deceptive, untrustworthy, and scheming I was.”

She notes, however, that she was “never bullied or picked on,” because her peers were afraid of her. Instead, she was often the one who picked on others, coldly choosing her victims and targeting their vulnerabilities. She also lacked the insecurities that plagued many of her friends, and didn’t care very much what others thought of her.

Just as the sociopaths you know probably begin to wear on your nerves at some point–self-centeredness, in the end, being a friendship-killer–the memoir begins to grow old a few chapters in. The fact that it is interesting but not entirely illuminating should come as no great surprise. The best memoirs work because the author is able to reflect with some degree of honesty and humility on his or her own flaws. While Thomas is honest to a point, it is difficult to trust a voice that confesses to thoughtlessly bending the truth to her own purpose; is she being truthful now? Thomas’s self-congratulatory tone tends to wear after a while. The premise is certainly compelling. But what is missing, ultimately and perhaps unsurprisingly , is the author’s ability to truly connect with her audience.

Crown, May 14, 2013

ISBN 9780307956644

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Michelle Richmond is the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog. Her new novel will be published next year by Bantam, and her new story collection is forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2.