How About Having Only One

only children

Staying on the theme from my recent post that the greenest thing a person can do is to not have kids….OK I realize it’s not realistic to think that more people than not will decide to have no children, so what about the idea of couples only having one  child? Author Bill McKibben takes this on with his book Maybe  One.

McKibben writes if we averaged 1.5 children per woman,  not just about 2 which is what it is now, and we reduce immigration somewhat, in 2050 the U.S. population would be 230 million, which is what it was when Ronald Reagan was elected.  He argues that it would make a difference in reducing environmental damage if more people would stop at one child.

But it’s best for a child to have a sibling, right? McKibben says wrong.

The bias against only children began in the late 1800’s with psychologist Stanley Hall.  He was the Victorian era’s “Dr. Spock.” He did a study of “peculiar and exceptional children” with 1045 child subjects. “Peculiar and exceptional” was loosely defined, from psychical to physical reasons. 46 (about 4%) out of the 1045 were only children, according to him, a “number entirely out of proportion to children generally,” therefore he concluded an only child is very likely to be peculiar and exceptional.  Upon closer inspection, his studies have been criticized for reflecting his own beliefs based on his boyhood experiences, which not so surprisingly included siblings.

Even though studies after this would largely not stand up to the rigors of good research, the idea stuck, and the conventional wisdom to this day is that it is not good to have an only child.

Better studies to date say otherwise–in fact they have shown that there are advantages to being the only child. Only children tend to have higher IQs than their peers with siblings, they tend to have more internal locus of control, and score higher on achievement motivation measures.

They are no more likely to be lonely, shy or unpopular with their peers than kids with siblings.  McKibben says the idea that only children are more likely to be spoiled or pampered is also a myth. In the 70s psychologist Toni Falbo researched this idea and found onlies were no different from kids with siblings on this score.

But they do experience some bennies that those of us with siblings do not get to experience: no sibling rivalry, which can make an impact on a person’s life, and they are not subject to “differential affection” – they do not have to compete for their parents’ attention.

While the myth still looms, McKibben argues that onlies “aren’t different from anyone else,” and that “single kid families can work and are necessary” to help us ensure we do not exceed “planet capacity,” which means the population that the earth can support.

The perils of only children need to be demystified so people can feel it’s alright to have an only child. They need to be demystified on behalf of the children who are already here so they are more likely to live in a sustainable world.

And parents need to look harder at why they want more than one.  Is it because they want a boy and a girl and will keep having them until they do? Is it because they want the experience of having a baby again? More parents need to think beyond their own desires and the impact of their actions on our world (and their kids who are already in it).

What do you see out there with single child families? Does it line up with research on onlies?

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One thought on “How About Having Only One

  1. Hi! I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this board that I’ve chosen to have only one biological child (I’m open to adoption later on, but I’m not holding breath that it’s going to happen). Because I’ve sometimes been criticized for my choice, I’m loathe to question others’. Nonetheless I’m on a board for parents of only children, and we sometimes discuss what we think are good and not-so-good reasons to have another child.

    Generally we think that you should only have another child if you really want one – not to give your existing child a brother or sister. Or to please your parents or in-laws – will they be the ones staying up late with a colicky baby?

    Still, we don’t have a real problem with the two-child family being the norm – we just don’t want people who don’t follow that norm to be stigmatized.

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