We are a country of people who like to get into each other's business. We love reality shows and gossip websites, and hold endless discussions of what people wear, who they're dating and why they haven't lost the baby weight. And beyond these more superficial pursuits, we've got friends and family making note of our personal choices in ways that imply judgment or superior knowledge (theirs... always theirs!). They often know better where one should go to college, who one should marry and certainly, how many children one should have. They're a very knowledgeable bunch, those.
I was recently at a birthday party hosted by a young mother in her mid-30s, a gathering populated by other families around the same age with toddlers galore. Most had at least one, some more, and as I sat there with another older woman (come on, they were mid-30s!) perusing the madness, she made comment about our hostess's one-child status, remarking, "Well, they really should have another, it's SO much better for kids to have siblings." (Emphasis on "so" was all hers.)
Now, I have only one child, as this woman well knew, so she was either being ponderously insensitive or just too distracted by caterwauling toddlers to realize the faux pas. And, frankly, I long ago stopped caring what others think of my parenting choices, particularly the number of my progeny pool. But it stirred some thought that propelled me into a bigger conversation with several others: Just why are we still convinced more-than-one-child families are the superior option?
In the creaky days of yore, large families were de rigueur for reasons of religious and ethnic tradition, cultural norms and, of course, to provide staff for family farms. After the dawn of birth control (commenced in 1914 with Margaret Sanger's first clinics, exploding when the Pill was approved in 1960) and, more recently, economic and financial burdens that demand two working adults, along with shifting cultural expectations, families have gotten measurably smaller. From the New York Daily News, July 2012:
The United States saw 4.3 million births in 2007 and this number has dropped each year since then and is now about 3.96 million. That's a decline of "a little less than 10 percent between 2007 and 2011," Steven Martin, a senior research associate at New York University, told the Daily News.
And it's not just about money; cultural changes have given families greater freedom to make their personal choice, regardless of Aunt Mildred's meddling. But the question remains: IS a sibling necessary to the health and well being of even today's modern child? I put this to three "onlies" representing three different age demographics: a 20-something man with no children (we'll call him "Brian"), a 30-something woman with a second child on the way ("Savannah") and a 60-something woman who raised an only child ("Joanne"). I asked them each the same questions; their answers are humorously age-appropriate and very enlightening:
1. The disadvantages of being an only child:
Brian: When you're left to your own devices, it's by yourself. You can't take advantage of your younger siblings. [You don't] have that drive to be better than the other.
Savannah: You are the only focus; it can mean that you don't get much space at times from expectations. I can see why only children often hold themselves to very high expectations because when the progression of your life is the focus of a family, it can mean pressure builds easily. This kind of pattern is a tough one to break as an adult, and hard to even have perspective on when all you know is the kind of upbringing you alone experienced.
Joanne: The only disadvantage was that my parents seemed more afraid than normal regarding losing me to accidents, illness or in-laws. For my father, it was a phobia. My mother's expectations were great. I felt pressure to fulfill her dreams. One was destined to disappoint. Still, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.
2. The advantages of being an only child:
Brian: Simply, 100% of everything: attention, love, trouble, gifts, etc. None of the jealousies over your sibling getting something you wanted. Not being compared to your sibling, either good or bad.
Savannah: As an adult, I feel the biggest advantage was relationships with my parents that were, for the most part, uninterrupted and consistent. While, of course, they had their own things to deal with as adults when I was a child, they were able to engage fully (yet I think appropriately) in my interests and well-being. That could sound like "getting all the attention" is the best part but it's more than that; the connection that is created when you are the only child is intense, for better or for worse!
Joanne: I was the center of my families' universe for many years. From earliest memory, I was aware of this singular advantage. I lived in a house on the same property as my grandparents and my aunt and uncle, so I was never lonely. I was lavished with attention, affection and love. I always sat at the adult table and was included in dinner conversation. There was financial hardship and insecurity, but because my parents had only one child, they devoted all their resources to "raising one good citizen," managing to afford supplemental education and extracurricular activities which would offer me more opportunities as an adult. My relatives agreed that you couldn't love your children too much. I cherished it.
3. What do you feel is the most unfair and inaccurate view of only-children?
Brian: That only children are spoiled.
Savannah: The obvious one that we all hate: entitled or spoiled. Life is not easier for an only child. Period. You don't get everything you want, and learning to work hard to get the things you want in life has NOTHING to do with being an only child or having siblings. It has everything to do with what values your parents and other important role models instill in you from the beginning and how you choose to live your life from there. To try and box in every "only child" in such small and irrelevant terms (spoiled, entitled, attention needing, etc.) or to pin certain behaviors someone may or may not have on the fact that they were raised as an only child seems as limiting as an any other stereotype.
Joanne: The most inaccurate perception is that all only children are doomed to be lonely, inflexible, uncooperative, self-infatuated, or self-serving. You can be lonelier in a crowd.
4. Would you, are you, or have you been comfortable being a parent of an only-child?
Brian: Yes, and that's what I want.
Savannah: During the process of deciding whether or not to have another child, I heard often from people that it was "wrong" to have only one if it was possible, health-wise, to have more. One person even called it a "disservice" to my first child. That made me so angry because I can't understand how choosing to give all your love and attention to one child could ever be seen as a bad thing. Adult life is complicated, messy and difficult at times, and to be able to choose a balance that works for you and for your family should be no one else's business or choice. There are pros and cons to every single choice you make as a parent; what makes a wonderful parent/child relationship, in my opinion, has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you are an only child. Why some people have decided that it's so "strange" to only have one child will always shock me, honestly... the quality of your childhood is defined by far more elements and details than whether or not you have siblings.
Joanne: I was not one of those people who wanted lots of children. I just wanted the one I was blessed to have. I can't remember ever being criticized.
5. And, finally, did you ever, or do you ever, wish you'd had siblings?
Brian: At a time I did, but it was short-lived.
Savannah: Definitely. I used to wish for a sibling when I was little when I blew out my birthday candles. Now, watching my husband's siblings together with all of their kids, I really appreciate what a lifelong journey and friendship being a sibling could be. But, I am a big believer that many of the traits and qualities that have brought me the most success and happiness in my life are, perhaps, products of my upbringing as an only child -- it's impossible to know how life would be different, of course, but I would never change that experience. I have very strong feelings about being raised as an only child; it was a wonderful way to grow up.
So there's a passionate and illuminating report from three "onlies," perspectives which, frankly, echo points made by professionals on the topic. We can readily extrapolate one solid, indisputable truth: IT'S NOBODY'S BUSINESS HOW MANY CHILDREN YOU CHOOSE TO HAVE.
So, to those who persist in criticizing others; commenting, remarking, tossing around statements with no basis in fact, please do this: Sit down, shut up, enjoy your own choices and keep your perhaps loving but misguided opinions to yourself.