No More Hopscotch

Say goodbye to hopscotch and hula hoops. The average family has shrunk—from 2.3 kids in 1970 to 1.8 kids in 1991, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And while that may make life easier for parents, it's transforming the childhood experience in ways that make life less fun.

More kids for example, are growing up as only children. Often less competitive than kids who grow up squabbling with brothers and sisters, only-borns may have trouble with the dog-eat-dog world of the classroom, says human-development expert David Eggebeen.

"If you're a first-grade teacher and have two-thirds of a class of only-borns, the psychological feel is going to be quite different than a class that is mixed," he observes. Onlies, who can be more turned inward or self-directed, may also be less comfortable working in groups and sharing resources than kids with sibs.

As parents wait longer before increasing family size, only kids may have trouble accepting sibs when they do come along, adds Eggebeen, a professor at Penn State University. "Since 1950, there's been almost a doubling in the population of children who reach five years of age before the next child is born." Onlies get a major blow to self-esteem when dethroned from "pseudo-singleton" status.

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Singleton or not, children in small families often find themselves the object of close attention, says Jay Belsky, Ph.D., a professor at Penn State. And that's not as good as it sounds.

"Parents, especially the educated and the affluent, are becoming more absorbed in their children's lives," Belsky adds. The resulting "best friend" relationships often limit the time children have to do what they want.

In addition, kids with few sibs may grow up with different values than their parents, points out Judy Dunn, Ph.D., a professor in human development, also at Penn State. Raised in larger families, such parents may know how cooperation and sharing make a household run better.

Given their small families, today's kids are also especially likely to be raised by moms and dads who lack the parenting skills that come with raising multiple offspring. But they may be even more affected by today's trend of serial marriages, reports Tony Falbo, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas in Austin. Children whose favorite playmates are stepbrothers and sisters often experience loss if their parents divorce, for example.

Nonetheless, Dunn points out that all siblings are a double-edged sword. "What's striking about the sibling relationship is that it can be extremely supportive and positive or it can be hostile, disparaging, and aggressive."

In the end, says Dunn, what's crucial to a kid's development is not the number of sibs, but how well primary caregivers recognize a child's uniqueness.

Photo: Honey, I shrunk the family: Mom, Dad and little 1.8. (INDEX/BLACK BOX)

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