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.