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Susan Newman: The Case for the Only Child

Busting the myths about only children.

According to sociologist Susan Newman's new book, The Case for the Only Child, stopping at one child can be a difficult decision but it's also becoming a popular one. Nearly 25 percent of families have only one child. Here's more from Susan about why this phenomena is growing, and some of the myths about onlies:

Jennifer Haupt: Why is stopping at one child sometimes difficult?

Susan Newman: If you have one child, you are made to feel guilty for not having another. Your mother, your friends, even strangers tell you that "You can't have just one. How can you do that to your child?" It's become a numbers war among parents that has exposed one of the best kept family secrets: One child is quietly becoming the new traditional family.

JH: Then why are we seeing so many single-child families?

SN: The biggest factors are the economy and women marrying and starting their families later: The National Center for Health Statistics states that in the 24 years between 1980 and 2004, the number of women giving birth at age 30 has doubled, at age 35, tripled and after age 40 has almost quadrupled. Those who wait until they are older often face infertility or secondary infertility. Age limits for parents can be a significant impediment to adopting a second child, too. And, adoption costs and infertility treatments are steep, beyond the reach of many.

Most women are working because they have to, to help support their families. Over 70 percent of women with children are working. For the first time in history there are more women than men in the workforce. Holding down a job and raising children at the same time is stressful and difficult.

JH: What does it cost to raise a child today?


Although no one wants to put a price tag on children, raising them is expensive. According to the Department of Agriculture, families with an average income between roughly $57,000 and $98,000 will spend a little over $286,000 to rear one child from birth through age seventeen-college not included. About $46,000 is for food!


The more you earn, the more you may spend: Families in the high income brackets can figure to spend closer to $475,000 before factoring in the costs of a college education, public or private. And, parents with the highest incomes could be looking at a "Million Dollar Baby." Children, no matter what your income, are big ticket items and many wonder if they can afford another child.

JH: Is it true that single children tend to have imaginary companions to compensate for their loneliness?

SN: There is no scientific evidence. Jerome Singer, Ph.D., professor of psychology and child study at Yale University, confirms that the imagination required to create make-believe friends "is not the exclusive property of the ‘only' child, the isolated, the ill or the handicapped. Imaginary friends serve the purpose of meeting a need-to confront loneliness, to combat a fear, or to compensate for feelings of weakness in relation to adults or older children." Any child can feel that need. In fact, sixty-five percent of all children have pretend friends at some point in their young lives.

JH: How true is the stereotype that only children are spoiled?

SN: The spoiled only stereotype seems so unjust in today's parenting climate. With or without siblings, so many children are spoiled because parents can't say no to their children. They don't want to see them unhappy for a minute...and simply give in to their children's wants and wishes.

JH: The bossy stereotype is another favorite label, right?

SN: Only children learn quickly that attempting to run the show, a ploy that they may get away with at home, doesn't work with friends and that a bossy, aggressive attitude is a quick ticket to ostracism from the group. Lacking siblings, only children want to be included and well liked.
Children with siblings often have more "who is the boss" difficulties because they are forced to share toys and other possessions, television time, and parents. Children with siblings who have been jostled and have had to compete are more likely to be the ones to push someone down, to want to be first in line or yell louder in order to be heard. Onlies have always been heard at home; they seem to know that their turn will come.

JH: Why do most people believe siblings are essential to a child's development?

SN: That's another piece of the only child myth that children without siblings will have developmental and socialization problems. We have been brainwashed into believing that siblings are socially or intellectually advantageous-or both. Necessary. As a means of insuring positive development and happiness, they are not mandatory. Large studies in the US and China have concluded that only children have as many friends as their peers with siblings.

From another perspective, siblings are not all they are cracked up to be. The world is very quiet about the darker side of siblings-sibling abuse, physical and verbal-is quite high, much higher than parental abuse. As many as 74 percent of siblings push or shove their brothers and sisters and 40 percent go further-they kick, punch and bite their siblings. If we add verbal abuse, the number of siblings who are verbally aggressive regularly climbs to 85 percent. One 13-year-old said, "You can do nasty things to your brothers and sisters for no reason." From the day your first child is dethroned by a brother or sister, it is a role of the dice as to how well they will get along or if they will get along at all. A British study of 40,000 homes revealed that teens, for instance, are happier the fewer siblings there are in the home-the lack of bullying and sibling strife being the main reason.

For a long time researchers have argued "the tutoring affect" as an advantage to having a sibling and as the reason firstborns might have slightly higher IQs, but that argument rages with documentation on both sides. The jury is still out on whether or not any IQ advantage exists.

JH: You call the single-child family, "The New Traditional Family." Do you think parents, single or with a partner, will have more only children in the future?

SN: We have been brainwashed into believing that siblings are socially or intellectually advantageous-or both. Necessary. As a means of insuring positive development and happiness, they are not mandatory.

Most people do a reality check before adding another child to their family. The era of getting married and have the requisite two children is long gone. Family has new definitions that include single parents, gay and lesbian parents, and, of course, one child. The decline in marriage, the number of single women having babies, women in the workforce, the difficulties and expense of adoption and infertility technology, all point to more one-child families.

England is already referred to as a one-child nation-over 45 percent of families have one child. Many other countries-Japan, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, for instance, have extremely low birth rates. The United States has been copying European trends in many areas...and being a one-child family is another way we are doing so. Yes, the only child family is here to stay. Given the many pressures on parents today, more and more feel that they can be better parents to one. For them, one child is the desired, happy choice and fast becoming The New Traditional Family.

Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist, blogs for Psychology Today magazine and is the author of 15 books, most recently, The Case for the Only Child. Susan is the mother of four stepchildren during a first marriage and an only child in the second; she lives in New Jersey and taught at Rutgers University.

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