Not-so-lonely child

Dispelling the myth of the only child

Wendy Mulligan, pictured here with her husband Dave and son Max, says having one child was a good choice for her.

Wendy Mulligan, pictured here with her husband Dave and son Max, says having one child was a good choice for her.

Photo By PHOTO by allison young

My daughter was still in her infant car seat the first time it happened. I was buying groceries when the cashier asked me, “She your first?”

“Yep,” I said, swiping my debit card, irritated by this stranger putting her nose in my business.

“You gonna have any more?”

“Uh,” I stammered. “I don’t know.”

I didn’t know this woman, but for some reason I now felt as if I needed to make a major life decision on the spot, or to somehow justify the fact that I wasn’t already pregnant with another kid.

The truth was, though my husband and I hadn’t really said it aloud, the tenor of our conversations already belied this truth: Our precious, long-awaited girl who sat gurgling in her car seat was so special to us that we couldn’t see dividing our attention away from her for another child. I was pretty sure I just couldn’t love another kid that much, no matter what people said to the contrary.

Our daughter is now three and a half. I am now 40. We are happily done having kids. We love that we can travel together fairly easily, having freedom that we could never have with another child. We love our life. We love peace and quiet. We love that we only have to pay for one preschooler’s childcare. And, honestly, the idea of another baby in our house gives us cold sweats.

“When we decided to have one, we both just knew we only wanted one,” says Cindie Geddes, a local Reno writer and publisher whose 11-year-old son, Joe, is an only child. She and husband Jason were 34 and had been married for 14 years before Joe came along. “When Joe was born, we were positive we were complete. It just felt like it was that last puzzle piece.”

But soon afterward, the pressure set in.

“It bothered me that people assumed we would have another baby—people who were previously fine with us not having any. They assumed we’d have more.”

One friend commented to Geddes off-handedly that having only one child amounted to child abuse. “I just looked at her, and she was like, ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean you.’ But she meant it when she said it. She just thought they were too lonely.”

In Good Company

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of families in the U.S. who have just one child has doubled in the last 25 years. Single-child families are the fastest-growing family unit in the U.S. for two reasons: 1) People are starting their families later in life, and 2) We’re in a recession. (Rates of only children spiked during the Great Depression, too.)

This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the cost of raising kids from birth to age 17 has increased to $235,000 for middle-class Americans. A report by Child Care Aware puts Nevada among 35 states where a year of child care exceeds a year of tuition at a public college.

“No longer is [an only-child family] an unusual situation,” says Bill Evans, Ph.D., a professor of human development and education at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the State Specialist for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Youth Development.

“In England, about 45 percent of families have one child, and many countries like Japan and others in Asia are headed toward single-child families being dominant.”

But if this is the case, why is there still so much pressure on parents to make more kids?

“We all want to replicate what we know and understand,” says Evans. “Previous generations, many of them immigrants, had large families due to a variety of factors. That may be where that pressure comes from. But there’s simply no evidence that shows it’s a negative to stop at one.”

“One is the Loneliest Number,” and other myths

The myths associated with only children date back more than 100 years, to a psychologist named G. Stanley Hall, creator of the first American research lab, who said “being an only child is a disease unto itself.” It was largely his work that created the stereotype of lonely, bossy, spoiled, or unsociable only children—myths that persist today.

Evans, himself the father of an adopted, only-child daughter from China, points out that China has had a one-child policy for years, and for a long time people wondered whether it created a generation of “little emperors.”

“Some large studies, one looking back over 30 years, found no difference in only children’s relations with friends. The research data accumulating says that it’s not siblings that influence how kids turn out … Parenting style is the biggest factor.”

I mention to Evans that my daughter is a pleaser—her school friends, who learn from their older siblings, boss her around. In an effort to be liked, she often obeys their “commands.”

This sounds typical to Evans. “The reality is that those children lacking siblings, for the most part, want to be included and well-liked. And in terms of being spoiled, that can happen across any family; it’s not unique to only children.”

As for socialization, “a number of large studies have concluded that only children have as many friends as those in large families,” he says.

Wendy Mulligan, 42, a Reno teacher, and husband Dave, 50, have an 11-year-old son named Max. For Dave, married once before, Max was his third (his other two much older children lived mostly with their mom). But for Wendy, Max is her one and only. She says this has never hindered Max’s social skills.

“We get comments from other adults constantly about how well-mannered and mature Max is. Because he has always gone with us wherever we go, he has been exposed to adults regularly. I would attribute his disposition to having adults rather than children in his company a lot of the time.”

Even though Mulligan’s own sister is dear to her, the sibling rivalries between her husband’s two older children, now 22 and 20, revealed to her that siblings aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. In truth, one may be “the loneliest number,” but sometimes, two can be as bad as one.

“They fought constantly,” she recalls. “It was unbearable for several years … This was like birth control for me. There was no way I wanted to endure that with Max and a sibling.”

“One thing that a lot of people don’t like to talk about is sibling-on-sibling abuse,” Evans says. “One British study of about 40,000 homes found that teens were happier, on average, when they had fewer siblings in their home. That has to do with the lack of bullying and sibling strife.”

He adds that despite the anecdotal “tutoring effect” reputed to produce higher IQs among younger siblings, the truth is that the oldest kids and only children, on average, have slightly higher IQs.

“It’s clear that only children rely on adults around them to a greater degree than kids with siblings,” Evans says. “That’s why I think only children appear more mature, with many attaining great success as adults.” (A quick Google search of “famous only children” reveals that Alan Greenspan, Cary Grant, Charlize Theron, Franklin Roosevelt, Isaac Newton and Walter Cronkite were all only children.)

“They get more support from parents, they’re modeled by adults around them at an earlier age, they’re prepared for school at the same level or better than those with larger families. There’s no reason to be worried or preoccupied with those myths.”

So maybe we can turn down the pressure on us parents?

“It’s like every other issue,” says Geddes. “As sure as I was that I only wanted one, that’s as sure as other people are that they want two, three, or five. We should all just respect each others’ decisions … Plus, when I look at me and Jason, the world should just be happy we only had one.”