Only children: will they grow up to be selfish, lonely, self-centered, homicidal maniacs?
Scott and I have been torturing ourselves over the question of trying again for a second child. We share an urge to embiggen the family, but we also like our little club just the way it is. Henry certainly seems happy enough on his own. True, he has occasionally asked for a little brother, but I think he does that just to hear my heart explode. Practically speaking, our lives heavily favor the three-person-family scenario. So maybe we’re okay as we are. (Maybe.)
Now, if we were making this decision a century ago, we would know that we were duty-bound to procreate again, lest we warp our son forever. “Being an only child is a disease in itself,” stated G. Stanley Hall, turn-of-the-century child psychologist. ( Hall, a grim-looking bearded fellow, is largely credited with starting the anti-only prejudice that has lingered lo these many years. ) And according to olde-timey psychologist Alfred Adler, “The only child has difficulties with every independent activity and, sooner or later, they become useless in life.” (Oh, Al, you’re adorable .) Freud wrote that only children had sexual identity problems. But what do you expect from Freud?
Fortunately, modern research has debunked these expert’s questionable opinions. Henry, it seems, is more likely to be warped because he thinks “olde-timey” is a valid adjective (seriously, he uses it all the time) than he is by his only child status. In fact, hundreds of studies have shown that only children are no different from their peers. If anything, they’re, shall we say, superior. A landmark 20-year study showed that the only child’s increased quality time with his or her parents results in higher levels of achievement, academically and professionally. And according to a Newsweek story, “only children tend to be friendlier and more communicative, to get along well with adults and to have exceptionally close relationships with their parents.”
Still, there’s a lot of guilt associated with the decision to stop at one. Is it a selfish choice? Will my child be lonely and wish he had siblings, down the road? A quick Google search showed me that I’m hardly alone with my questions. Ask Moxie fielded questions similar to mine, and the comments she received from parents of only children were, by and large, reassuring. One potential problem kept cropping up: the only child being forced to take sole responsibility for aging parents. One commenter wrote, “If there is a compelling reason to have another sibling ‘for the sake of’ an existing child, then it’s not because it will necessarily make the kid’s childhood better, but because it will save the child from having to care for elderly parents by himself or herself, which is actually a pretty big burden. Is it enough of a reason? I’m not sure.” I’m not sure, either. But if the parents of an only child are that concerned, surely there are steps they can take well before they become too infirm to make their own choices.
Practical matters aside, the only child is left to bear alone the emotional burden of his parents’ aging and dying—and that’s a sobering thought. When my father had heart surgery and then suffered one complication after another, my siblings and I provided each other support, information, and lengthy bitch sessions. I don’t know what I would have done without them. And there’s something invaluable about a sibling who can agree that Event X really did happen in the way you remember, or that your mother (for instance) really did act as crazy as you think she did at Easter dinner. Siblings can help you feel less insane. (Unless they’re crazier than you are, in which case I don’t know what to tell you.)
If we lived in Italy, I might really be torturing myself over this issue. Across Europe, the average family size is shrinking, with birthrates plummeting to dangerously low levels in countries such as Italy and Greece. This trend, along with the population’s increased longevity, could spell disaster down the road: imagine countries populated by retirees, with no one to run, well, anything. It’s not a pretty picture.
Fortunately us American people are still birthing like crazy, so our only-child status won’t destroy the United States’ future economy. So maybe we should have another child and then move to Italy, to help Italy’s population. But what will we do in Italy? Questions, questions. While we mull these over, please feel free to provide your own thoughts on the only child in your life (or your imagination, as the case may be).