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Only children: will they grow up to be selfish, lonely, self-centered, homicidal maniacs?

By Alice Bradley

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).

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

...

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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SuburbanCorrespondent
Guest

Moving to Italy sounds like fun… I think we shouldn’t worry so much about the big questions and just make the decision based on what we want. You want another sweet-smelling, cuddly baby? Go ahead. You’re happy with what you’ve got? Great. It’s almost impossible to base the decision on what you think the child will want, because no one knows. Some children grow up to resent anything their parents did (you didn’t give me siblings! or you gave me a sibling!) – in that case, you can’t win, right? Some only children do wish, as grown-ups, that they had… Read more »

MomVee
Guest

Nothing against my brother, but I loved being an only child for 8.5 years. I’m a firm believer that birth order and family constellations shape our nature, but as such I believe in a wide variety of family constellations. It takes all kinds to make a world, and one of those kinds is Only Child. So do whatever makes you happy, and buy long-term care insurance!

Dana
Guest
Dana

I’m at this same impasse right now: I have a 2 1/2 year old, just turned 42, and am leaning for the moment against trying for or adopting another, though I do fantasize about it sometimes. Parenting books always talk about having “family balance” — well, our family feels plenty balanced now (not to mention snugly crammed into a 2-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn — you know all about that, Alice.) And can you imagine traveling (or just getting around town) with two ? Why not just board a bus with two live goats and a crate of chickens? Still ,… Read more »

Lara
Guest

I, too, ask myself these questions – especially when the 4 yr old daughter asks when she’s getting a brother. So one day, I wrote out a pro/con list considering the “logistics” of our lives, our circumstances, and our desires. The pro list for having another was considerably smaller than the con. At this point in our lives, I’m content to consider that as proof we won’t have another. If we suddenly get a bigger place, have to work less than full-time, or our lifestyle changes, maybe that list will look different. Who knows. As for only children being well-adjusted:… Read more »

MLB
Guest
MLB

We have 3 and I can honestly say that the “taking care of elderly parents” reason strikes me as a terrible reason to go beyond 1 child. I have witnessed too many destroyed relationships that sprung from taking care of elderly parents, or dysfunctional ones that were exascerbated by caretaking, to make that a compelling argument for 2+. In fact, personally, I hope that my kids can get through my old age (fingers crossed!) still speaking to each other, based on the trainwrecks I have seen.

Marcy
Guest
Marcy

Alice, I have a ten year old daughter who is an only. She’s a really social, happy, well-adjusted person–academically gifted, athletic, and basically just an awesome kid. Every so often she longs for a sibling (then she visits friends and watches them fight with their sibs!) but just as every so often she mentions how pleased she is to be an only. She has a ton of friends in the neighborhood and all the girls end up at our house because there are no sibs to butt in on the fun (the only downside to this is that I serve… Read more »

Becky
Guest

I think I become a better parent with each kid, but not because I’m more experienced. With every kid, I loosen my control a little, let go of a few more of the details and let the little stuff slide by. In my case, I think my eldest is doing better with a little bit *less* of my attention. She’s becoming more independent and confident. I shudder to think what she would be like if I was still so up in her business.

Marcy
Guest

I have always felt it very important to provide my children with siblings. Both my husband and I are very close to one or more of our siblings and enjoy that bond so much that we feel we have to pass that on if we can. However I’m sure when we get to the point of actually thinking about #2 I’ll be quite torn about it. I remember what it was like when all we had was a cat and we were debating getting another kitten. What would our cat do? Would she accept this new “sibling?” Would it change… Read more »

Katie
Guest
Katie

I’m an only child. So I’m probably biased. But here I go, talking like I have all the answers: 1)Taking care of elderly parents: You don’t just need siblings to help you get through this. Only children grow up to have spouses, partners and best friends to help out and talk to. My mother has SEVEN siblings and only a couple of them were any use at all–some were distinctly counterproductive. Maybe it’s sometimes better to be able to make decisions without running them all past a committee of siblings. 2)”Dangerously low” birth rates in Italy–pish tosh. Like other low-birth-rate… Read more »

A
Guest
A

I was an only child for 6 years. Then, between the ages of 6-14, my parents (divorced and remarried) managed to pop out 6 more kids. My dad and step mom with 4 more, and my mom and step dad with 2 more. When the time is right for me to have kids, one might assume that I would be dying for a big family as well? No. No, no, no. I want 2. That is it. I think that the decision is very personal and situationally based. It is an important decision and I think that it has to… Read more »

Tonja
Guest
Tonja

I’m a 35-year-old only child and I don’t murder people!

Marie
Guest

This is something I’ve thought about — mostly because, for reasons beyond my control, I won’t know if I’ll be having any more children (or least for a good long while) — and I think there are things to avoid, like with raising any child. There are perks and silver linings, like with any child. What’s a challenge is the questions of — when will you have another? Then when I stammer an answer, the follow-up being a listing of why it would be a horrible fate to be an only. I think there are plenty of examples of all… Read more »

Candace (Mama Luxe)
Guest

As others have pointed out…you can’t guarantee siblings will be helpful, supportive, life-long companions.
You do what’s right for your family. Simple as that.

Ammie aka Sleeping Mommy
Guest

I’m on the other side of this debate from the other commenters. One of the main reasons I wanted more than one child is because I had such a lonely childhood. And now that my dad has passed I feel it even more because there is no one to share the memories with or the grief and when my mother dies I feel like I’ll be all alone–even with my husband and children, it’s just not the same as having that family of origin bond of growing up experiences. Of course, I’m a bit overly emotional today, so that could… Read more »

Hip_M0M
Guest

I have an only child and have no plans for having another anytime soon. I too wanted more children but things didn’t work out that way since my son’s father and I are now divorced. That being said, I think only children are much different than those of siblings because they have more work cut out for them. They have to work much harder at communicating with other children and therefore end up being more social and outgoing. My best friend is an only child and I’ve spoken to her on several occasions about this. She’s very outgoing, has many… Read more »

lawschoolmom
Guest

I am an only child raised by a single mother, but I have three children of my own because I HATED being the only child. My grandmother was one of eight children and my mother is one of six children. I have a lot of cousins and I had an incredible time with them whenever we got together, which was infrequently because they lived several states away from us. I was always very lonely when I returned home. Taking care of my mother is not something about which I worry because she’s still quite young (52) and in good health.… Read more »

amy
Guest

I am an only. I think it made me a creative soul. I think it made me have a wonderful bond with my whole family. I think it made me a fantastic friend. I think it has also left me with a bit of a small hole in my life. I am jealous of siblings and have always wanted that feeling, that certainty. Always. Yr life is how you know it though I guess. xo

Fairly Odd Mother
Guest

Funny but I think that parents of only children probably hear a lot of the same things I hear as a homeschooling mom: how will your kids learn to get along with others? what about socialization? aren’t you isolating them too much?
I think that as long as Henry is living a full, active and happy life, your family and he will be fine. Families come in all flavors and no one can say what is the best.
(written by the daughter of two only children, who turned out to be wonderful parents and even better grandparents)

Anonymous
Guest
Anonymous

I hate being an only child, and plan on having at least two children so that they do not have to have the same experience as myself. Like other people said, you need to spread out the responsibility of caring for your parents when they do get older (my mom was one of 7 and barely did anything before her mom died–great example there, but I digress. At least she can talk to her siblings about growing up and their mom before she died, etc.) I really don’t like that I have no one to talk to about my parents… Read more »

C
Guest
C

I am a 39-year-old Only Child. I have lots of friends, a spouse and three children. Oddly the worst aspect of being an ONLY during my childhood was the fear that I would die and my parents would freak. (Yes, I am one of those people with a runaway imagination.) Anyway, I think that melodramatic fear captured the primary disadvantage of being an Only, which was feeling a fair amount of pressure to excel academically, athletically, socially, professionally, ETC. I have always felt that I need to do well in all of those pursuits, which has created a bit of… Read more »

MamaCass
Guest

I will say this. I have two daughters. The second is still new. I never imagined the amazing amount of joy I would feel as I see them interact and love each other, even at such a ripe age. They adore each other. It’s inspiring, and frequently brings me to tears. There is a lot of juggling to do, and sometimes I feel guilty that my first doesn’t get the “only” treatment any more, but I feel like when I look beyond the jealousy of a moment, or the time when one parent has to do bed time instead of… Read more »

not me
Guest
not me

My mom is one of three children and she still holds pretty much all of the burden for caring for her aging mother and for caring for her father before his death, not to mention caring for her grandmother. This doesn’t seem unusual in other families I know. I always wanted two children, but honestly, my marriage hasn’t turned out to be what I had hoped it would be so…

JChevais
Guest

My husband is an only. I remember he asked the doctor if everything was okay with my innards right after our first was born, because he was damned if his son was going to be an only too.
I sometimes wish that my husband had had siblings (it wasn’t his family’s choice, but after he was born it became medically impossible for his mother). He can be relatively hard to live with and I sometimes wonder if it’s because he grew up an only.

Marnie
Guest
Marnie

The only thing that really bothers me about my daughter being an only child is when friends talk about other kids and say “Well, you know, he’s an only child…” (because that somehow explains away whatever they perceive as bad behavior) and then remember that my daughter is an only child, and immediately say something like “well, of course, she’s not like that!” It makes me wonder how many times they talk about her to their other friends. At any rate, this is something I’ve thought about, but not really struggled with. We feel like a complete family, and while… Read more »

Liz C
Guest

I have two ‘only’ children, born 16 years apart. Daughter’s 25, son is 9. Even though I tried for years after my daughter for #2, it was probably better that it didn’t happen because of who I am as a mother. Hate to admit it, but I’ve learned that one at a time is all I can do. My two ‘onlies’ have been great kids (so far) but if I had gotten what I wanted so desperately when I was younger, things would have been very different, I’m sure.

Kristine
Guest

My mother had a brother. He died of Leukemia last year. Their mother is now sick (will recover, but is in rehab being ornery), and she’s dealing with everything as she would have if she’d been an only child (with the exception of keeping her niece and nephew informed as well as everything else). But she has other family members to lean on, so point 1) just because you have more than one doesn’t mean they’ll still be there when the time comes to help out with the elderly parents and point 2)she does still have a support system. So… Read more »

Little Read Hen
Guest

I’m having great internal debate on this one too. Complicated somewhat by the whole ‘blended family’ business. My daughter is 2 and a half. Her father and his girlfriend are having a baby next month and she has a one year old son…so the sibling benefits are more or less covered. My partner and I talk about possibly having a baby (or trying for a baby) next year, but he has a teenage son and grown (step) daughters…we could wind up with a total of five kids and a 28 year age gap. Seriously, what the hell?

Andrea K
Guest

Someone at the Chicago Tribune is reading your mind… yesterday’s paper featured a, well, *feature* on only children:
http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/chi-080809-only-children,0,2157019.story
It’s such a personal choice. My one caveat would be not to let your miscarriage make this decision for you. It’s nerve-wrecking and emotionally draining to try again. But if you decide your family wouldn’t be complete without another baby, you *can* do it. I did. 🙂

LeggyNic
Guest
LeggyNic

I feel like I’ve been both an only and an oldest. The only of my parents, I lived with my mom while Dad remarried and had two more (15 & 16 yrs younger). Mom remarried when I was 21 and I have a step-brother who’s 2 years younger. I’ve never lived longer than 2 weeks with any one of them. I enjoy a lot of independence that I learned as an only and can get along in just about any social situation. I have no problem being front and center if needed either. I also enjoy being close with my… Read more »

Katie
Guest

I have a three-month-old daughter, and I realized about halfway through my pregnancy that she would be our only child. I discussed it with my husband, and he was relieved, I think. We have several reasons for stopping with one, but the clincher for me is the overwhelming gut feeling I have whenever I think about it. And I’ve thought about it. A lot. I just see us as parents of one child. I am extremely close with my sister. Like, I can read her thoughts close. I know my parents are going to flip right the hell out when… Read more »

Liz
Guest
Liz

There are NO guarantees that a sibling will be of any help in a time of crisis. My husband has one brother and I have already observed that parental responsibilities have and will fall entirely on my husband’s shoulders and brother will most likely be a very difficult person to deal with when their parents pass. As for me and my sister, we are fairly close, and we definitely get those great shared memory/commiseration benefits that others have mentioned, but our current geographical locations mean that a lot more of the hard family stuff will probably fall on me. And… Read more »

Amanda
Guest

I’m not an only child, and I’m still a self-centered maniac.
🙂

Compa
Guest

I’m an only child of an only child mother. I always sort of wanted a sibling, but with a single mom who spent the first half of my childhood digging us out of poverty (great job by the way mom!) it wasn’t going to happen. So I had lots of surrogate siblings, both younger and older. Here’s the thing about surrogate siblings, friends, and spouses: they’re not siblings. If I compare the support that my husband and his sister were able to give each other during his mother’s illness and after her death, it is really of a different level… Read more »

yannayoga
Guest

I think you should do what’s right for your family, of course. But I will speak for only children, as I am one(except an older half brother.) I’m very sad as an adult with no sibling, and I craved one as a child too. I do consider my parents as they age, and I’ll be alone when they die. I am very close to them, but the threesome being so tight has often confused bondaries. I’m sure it has a lot to do with me wanting a huge family now.

Anne
Guest
Anne

Dear Katie and Marnie, I love you. 🙂 My daughter is an only and I frequently hear and deal with the things you’ve mentioned. I have a brother, and to meet the two of us together you’d think one of us had to be adopted. He will be of no help if something should happen to my parent – the fact that we shared the same events growing up hasn’t magically made us close. My daughter is going to be an only due to some potentially very serious health problems for my husband, at his request, and I was okay… Read more »

Mox
Guest

We’re working on the third generation of onlys in my family — my mother was an only, I am an only, and my kid is an only. On the opposite side of the coin, my dad is one of eight and my husband is one of five. I can certainly see the charm of being a kid with siblings, and I continue to be amazed at how different kids in the same family can be. On occasion I have wished for a sib but for the most part I am comfortable and complete as an only and as the mother… Read more »

Alisa
Guest
Alisa

My husband is an only child and I’m with Jchevais–except she said it much more nicely (and much less bitterly) than I’m feeling right now…I feel fairly confident that he is much (much) harder to live with than he might otherwise have been had he had siblings. And I don’t even think he was spoiled–just that he has never had to relate at a peer level, with another family member (it probably didn’t help that he has no cousins close to his age). I have a couple other friends who are married to only children and they say the same… Read more »

anonforthisone
Guest
anonforthisone

I have one child who is 3. I don’t want any more. Partly because I am afraid of what PPD will do to her, since she would be old enough to remember. Partly because I already carry a heavy load handling housework and more. My husband is a nice guy and he does his best, but he’s one of those men who is incapable of so much as putting a dish into the dishwasher while he is also providing childcare to our child. (There’s a scientific study: why can women multi-task housework, and why do men SUCK SO BAD at… Read more »

Jenn
Guest
Jenn

I’ve sometimes wished I had siblings, but I’ve never really actively regretted that I’m an only child. The only thing that makes me really wistful was watching the way my mother and her brothers were able to talk together to remember their mother after she died. For over ten years my mother and I lived alone together and I feel like nobody else really knew her during that time–so I’ll have nobody to really share that with and keep the memories alive with after she’s gone.

Mauigirl
Guest

Never fear, Alice. Both DH and I are only children and we liked it that way. I’d see my friends fighting with their brothers or sisters and be glad I didn’t have one. When I was little I always made friends even if we went away on vacation – I’d always find some little kid on the beach to play with or meet one at the cottage complex we were staying at or whatever. And if I didn’t, I didn’t care – I was very happy by myself because I had, as my mother calls it, “inner resources.” I could… Read more »

Molly
Guest
Molly

You should read Maybe One by Bill McKibben. It covers a lot of the stuff in this column in somewhat more depth, and goes into environmental aspects analyzing the average American child’s carbon footprint and whatnot. So if you do move to Italy, start walking to the corner market every day to buy fresh bread and vegetables, carry them home in canvas bags, reduce your footprint, you could have a much larger family with a similar or smaller environmental impact than most American families. Not that the environment is the only (or even the most important) factor, but it’s an… Read more »

Heather
Guest
Heather

My husband and I were discussing this yesterday on our way to get blinds for the baby we are expecting in November (a little ahead of ourselves, oh hell yes). You see, I think we’d both prefer to have two children because we each had a brother growing up and having a sibling has meant a lot to us in our adult years. But for our income level, and our lives, it might not be affordable. Daycare in our city is the same as a mortgage on a 2 bedroom condo (when you can get it- a recent estimate put… Read more »

SydneySailor
Guest
SydneySailor

I have an only child who is now five. I would love to have another child, but nothing really seemed to be happening for years, so we’ve moved on (for the most part.) I am currently reading The Future of your On1y Child by Carl Pickhardt, which I have found to be a great book on how to make sure you don’t screw up the future of your adult only child. Well, I figure we are going to screw them up at least a little bit (regardless of how many in the family.) But this book will help us identify… Read more »

Donna
Guest
Donna

I just came across your blog today and LOVE it! You are an excellent writer. I just happened to find this post and wanted to chime in, even if it’s an old post. I’ve had a difficult time deciding if we should have another child. We currently have only 1 and while I’ve always only wanted one, I do worry about the long term future and him being alone. But, I’m an only child and my husband is and we turned out fine I think. I have a lot of friends, am able to talk easily to people, and am… Read more »

Beth
Guest
Beth

I am an older parent (53). I was an only child–lost my Mom at age 11 and Dad at age 39. Before my dad died, I lived in contant fear of losing him. So basically lived much of my young life in the state of grief. My husband (now 61) and I adopted our angel from China when she was 11 months. Now at age 4, I am freaking out about the fact that she is an only-child with older parents, and what will happen to her when we get old and sick? I want to adopt another child–older between… Read more »

MJS
Guest
MJS

Have another kid while you still can. Your kid will resent you for it if you don’t. I’m an only child and I curse it each day.

Jean
Guest
Jean

I guess looking back it would not have worked out well. My parents’ marriage would not have held up with the added stress of multiple children. But I am struggling bitterly with being an only child more now in my late 40’s than ever before. I have always hated being an only. I grew up without cousins close by, without a best friend, and cannot have my own children. I am so deeply envious of those who have siblings or at least were able to form friendships who filled some of that void. My husband is the second of five… Read more »

Isabel Kallman
Admin

I am sorry to hear that you are struggling so much. Perhaps you can talk to someone about it? A professional?

I have a sister but we are not very close. I have found that friendships with other couples work great for us.