Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Having Only One Child: Easier for Parents, But Also Better for the Child?

Emotional attunement might mean more than the number of children you have.

Let’s be honest for a minute: Having only one child is much easier for parents than having two or more children. Sure, many parents of single children complain that they actually have a more difficult time because the onus of entertaining the child falls entirely on the parents, but that argument can only carry so much weight. The truth is that having one child as opposed to two or more allows for a much more controlled environment, and there are also fewer relationships in the family to potentially complicate the overall family dynamic. And let’s not forget the fact that, in a single-child family, there’s only one child who can scream, cry, and have meltdowns. That must sound appealing to any living, breathing parent, right?

As the parent of two and a psychologist who has worked with children ages birth to 5 years, I understand the wish to have only one child. I see many parents who decided to have only one child, and they seem awfully peaceful! They often give gobs of attention to the one child, which means that the only child must feel extremely loved and attended to. Having only one child also allows the parent to be more attuned to the individual emotional needs of the single child because there isn’t another child whose needs take the parent away from the other child. The fact that the parents of only children have more time and energy to become and stay attuned to the child shouldn’t be overlooked, because attunement to the emotional needs of a child is crucial for positive emotional and cognitive development in children.

But is it selfish of parents to have only one child? It's hard to deny that having only one child shortchanges the only child out of one of the most important relationships an individual can have in this lifetime: the relationship with one or more siblings. As a therapist who has sat through almost a hundred family therapy sessions in his career, I can tell you that kids often feel that their strongest ally and most trusted partner in the family system is their sibling or siblings — even if they sometimes fight and insist that they dislike each other. A sibling relationship is actually one of the best vehicles for children to learn how to navigate relationship struggles and to learn about conflict resolution as they grow up, so many single children will miss out on this opportunity unless they socialize extensively with other children or child relatives who serve almost as honorary siblings.

The trouble with the debate over having only one child or having two or more children is that there is no right answer, which is probably a good thing: Men and women are given the luxury to decide what they want for their family, and they have the unchallenged ability to make that wish a reality. My hope, however, is that men and women think more about the interests of the child than their own as they decide how many children to have. I'll give you an example that speaks to the heart of the issue.

This past weekend, a friend told me about a couple who has one child, a couple who enjoys the “good life,” including weekends in the Napa Valley, cheese-tasting parties at their well-appointed home, and exotic vacations where the one-child family engages in highly sophisticated activities. My friend summed it up like this: “To be honest, the parents make the kid conform to their life, not the other way around.” My friend added, defending the parents who occupy a peripheral place in his social circle, “But their child is the most well-behaved child.” Maybe it’s just me, but the whole situation sounds a little skewed. In fact, the child sounds more like an over-controlled, pint-size adult who's been coerced into growing up too soon. I believe strongly that kids are kids, which means that they are supposed to play outside, occasionally get a bump or bruise, and spend lots of time exploring their environment with other kids. In other words, Disney World is probably better for kids than Napa. Quick caveat: If parents choose to live a lifestyle that is more adult-oriented, catering less to the kids than most parents, those parents should probably have a second child so the child feels that he or she has a peer.

Because parenting presents one of life’s most complex challenges, we will never know for sure which precise combination of environmental factors leads to optimal development. However, parents shouldn't stop trying to figure out the magic recipe! At the end of the day, if parents choose to have only one child for any reason — even if only because it's easier on them, which it is — there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that unless the parents don’t build in other supports in the child’s life to make sure that they can simulate (as close as possible) the benefits that come from children having sibling relationships.

 

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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